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Neshoba Central beats New Hope to inch closer to title series


Adam Minichino



Tabitha Beard knew what to expect from seventh-grader Aspen Wesley. 


The New Hope High School fast-pitch softball coach compiled enough scouting reports on Neshoba Central's seventh-grade right-handed pitcher to formulate a game plan predicated on her hitters being aggressive early in the count and not swinging at any of Wesley's "junk." 


Judging from Beard's sigh nearly 10 minutes after her team's 10-1 loss at Lady Trojan Field on Saturday, New Hope will have to figure out a way to follow its plan to put more pressure on Wesley.  


"She was exactly what I thought she was. She is exactly what we worked to prepare for," Beard said. "She is a great seventh-grader. She is pretty good, but we have to do what we prepare to do. If we would have done that, I think the outcome would have been a lot different." 


As it turned out, Wesley struck out at least one batter in every inning en route to a 13-strikeout effort. She also allowed only five hits and walked two to move the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A defending state champion Lady Rockets (29-2) one victory away from a return trip to Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland, the site of the state title series. 


Game 2 will be at 5 p.m. Monday in Philadelphia. New Hope (20-8-1) will try to do a better job at the plate early in the count to avoid falling behind and giving Wesley the chance to test how far the outside corner could go and to use a variety of pitches to make the Lady Trojans chase. 


"She fights really hard to get the first strike and then she throws junk," Beard said. "There were a lot of times when we weren't aggressive on that first strike and we did what we do: We watch the first strike and then swung at the next one no matter where it was. We were forced to hit her pitches." 


D.J. Sanders accounted for New Hope's only run with a home run to left field in the fifth inning. Sanders had her other hit in the first. Kaitlin Bradley followed with a push bunt in between the pitcher and first baseman. Sanders and Bradley stole third and second, respectively, but Wesley worked out of the jam by striking out two batters. Kelsey Gerhart fouled off five pitches before she worked a walk to load the bases. Wesley, though, recorded another strikeout to keep the game scoreless. 


"She did a pretty good job," Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry said. "She did her job. We're going to play defense behind her. I have told her the whole year we're going to play defense behind you if you throw strikes." 


Embry emphasized that point to Wesley in the bottom of the seventh after she issued a leadoff walk to Brittni Beard. Wesley retired the next three batters to end the game and give the Lady Rockets their 14th win in a row. Neshoba Central's only losses this season have come to St. Martin on Feb. 28 and to Germantown on April 1. Since then, the Lady Rockets have scored 10 or more runs in seven games. They displayed that firepower by reaching Sanders for 12 hits. leadoff hitter Hailey Lunderman had three hits, while Kaila Willis also had three. 


As young as New Hope is with its eighth-graders and underclassmen, Neshoba Central also has time to mature with a sophomore catcher (Hannah Williams), a sophomore first baseman (Kayla Robertson), and two other sophomores who were either on the field or in the lineup at the end of the game. The team has only two seniors, so Embry feels good about his team's future, particularly if it can continue to apply pressure on defenses like it did Saturday. Robertson opened the second with a single. Following an out, she moved to second base after a pitch from Sanders went off catcher Mackenzie Harvey's glove. Willis then squared to bunt in an attempt to draw the third baseman in. The move worked, as Gerhart crept forward. The Lady Rockets capitalized, sending the runner to third. Bradley moved from shortstop to third to try to erase the runner. She was in position to catch Harvey's well-placed throw, but she couldn't hold on as the runner slid into her. 


"We want to put pressure on the other team as much as possible," Embry said. "We are blessed with speed. Even those who aren't as fast still can run OK, so we're able to do some things." 


Willis then worked a walk before Sanders inched closer to getting out of the inning with a strikeout. But Wesley helped her cause with a two-run single to right field on a 1-2 pitch. Kayla McKinion followed with an RBI single. A single by Lunderman and an error helped the Lady Rockets tack on another run. 


Sanders struck out eight, but Neshoba central used its speed to move into scoring position and then capitalized on its ability to deliver clutch hits up and down the lineup. The Lady Rockets added a run in the fourth, two in the sixth, and two more in the seventh to take a 1-0 series lead. Last year, New Hope won Game 1 in Philadelphia on a no-hitter by Sanders only to see Neshoba Central come to Columbus to take the next two. Embry feels his young team is old enough to know that one victory isn't enough in a best-of-three series. 


"They were there last year," Embry said. "We are in opposite spots. They are young but experienced. They have been in the battle and they believe they can win. They are going to play very, very, very hard." 


Beard wants the Lady Trojans to bring some of that confidence to the field Monday. As much credit as she gave to Wesley, she hopes her players believe in themselves enough to deliver different results. 


"They have to go into the box with so much confidence and know what they can do and walk in and own it," Beard said. "We do it well at times and there are times when we don't. We have to understand when we are successful and when we are not. 


"I feel like they are what we used to be. We used to walk into a place with so much confidence that people were intimidated by us. I feel like we were intimidated today. I feel we were rushed. We tried to work on being quick, but not rushed, and we didn't do a good job of that." 


Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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