May 13, 2014 11:08:23 AM
PHILADELPHIA -- Leadoff hitters are meant to get things going.
Hailey Lunderman took that part of her job description to heart Monday afternoon.
Coming off a three-hit effort in a Game 1 victory against New Hope, the junior shortstop set the tone with a ringing triple off D.J. Sanders in the bottom of the first inning. Three batters later, Lunderman scored on a sun-aided double by Kayla Robertson as part of a four-run first that helped propel the Neshoba Central High School fast-pitch softball team to a 9-2 victory against New Hope in Game 2 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series.
The victory pushes Neshoba Central (30-2), the defending Class 5A state champion, into the state title series against the winner of the South Jones-Wayne County series this weekend at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland.
New Hope ends its season at 20-9-1. The Lady Trojans have lost four straight playoff series to the Lady Rockets in slow- and fast-pitch softball dating back to 2012.
"At times there were much better at-bats and at times we did great things," New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. "I guess what we never could do in the middle of all of that was put a whole game together against them. I hate it for the older girls. It breaks my heart. I don't want that to be what they remember. When they look back, I want them to remember how far we made it, not Neshoba Central."
With Sanders and infielder Kaitlin Bradley leading a five-player senior class, New Hope came together with a roster packed with young and inexperienced players. The team fought back from a loss to Lewisburg in Game 1 to win that best-of-three series and then swept Germantown to advance to the North State title series. Although New Hope came up short of returning to the state championship round (it lost to Wayne County in 2012), Beard hopes the end of the 2014 season serves as a beginning for a new group of players who will be charged with maintaining the school's softball tradition. The 2014-15 squad figures to have no seniors.
"I was proud of them for the way they stepped up and played defense and came to the plate," Beard said. "I felt like they came to the plate with a little more confidence at the end and put the ball in play."
Mackenzie Harvey came on in relief of Sanders and allowed two hits and one walk in the final 2 2/3 innings. Beard praised the performance of the sophomore, who typically plays catcher. She also credited Sanders for shouldering a big load this season and against Neshoba Central.
"Unfair so, we put a lot on D.J.," Beard said. "That is so unfair to do that. She felt like she was in a situation where she couldn't win. She threw strikes and they hit it and we didn't play defense behind her. If she didn't, they walked. It was kind of that situation, and I think that took the air out of us a little bit. I was proud they got it back."
Lunderman, who has given a verbal commitment to play softball at Ole Miss, struck out in her first at-bat against Sanders on Saturday. She then proved extremely difficult to get out, rapping a single, single, and triple in Neshoba Central's 10-1 victory at Lady Trojan Field. She was just as pesky Monday, getting two hits and forcing center fielder R.J. James to make a fine running catch to retire her in the sixth. She said the first inning uprising was important to give the Lady Rockets the momentum so they could close the series early. Last season, Sanders threw a no-hitter in a 5-2 victory in Game 1 in Philadelphia, only to see Neshoba central rally for two victories in Columbus en route to the state title.
"I feel like I set the tone for the game," said Lunderman, a speedy left-handed hitter. "If I get a hit, everybody else will get a hit. If I don't, it will be a long game."
Neshoba Central tacked on two more runs in the second and three more runs in the fourth. The final three runs knocked Sanders out of the game. Even though the Lady Rockets had only five hits, they capitalized on eight walks and two hit batters by Sanders. Seventh-grader Aspen Wesley did her part by holding New Hope to two hits and striking out 10. On Saturday, Wesley surrendered five hits and struck out 13. In Game 2, Alex Melton's two-run single down the right-field line in the fourth accounted for the Lady Trojans' scoring. James reached on an infield single in the seventh for the only other hit. Wesley also had a bases-loaded walk in the second and a two-run single in the fourth.
"She has meant a lot to the team," Lunderman said of Wesley. "She has a bunch of strikeouts almost every game. She had 17 against Lake Cormorant, so we only had to get four outs. That helps a lot."
Lunderman said Wesley's curveball makes her so difficult to hit against. Wesley also showed an ability to hit her spots, even though she walked three and hit a batter Monday. Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry said he will take outings like the one Wesley delivered every day.
"Even if it wasn't 13 strikeouts, a lot of games you don't get 10 strikeouts," Embry said. "We'll take that all day. If we can get that in the next two games, we feel like we have a chance."
Embry arrived at Neshoba Central in the summer of 2012 after running the slow- and fast-pitch softball programs at Eupora High for 12 years. He led Eupora to fast-pitch state championships in 2005, 2006, and 2007 and his slow-pitch titles in 2005 and 2007. At Neshoba Central, Embry has guided the slow-pitch team to state titles the past two seasons. He said his goal in coming to Philadelphia was to build a program that had the tradition of a program like New Hope, which has won 14 state titles in slow-pitch softball.
Lunderman said Embry has helped the Lady Rockets believe they can play with the best teams in the state.
"We have always wanted to win one," Lunderman said. "When he came here, it helped out a lot. He has made us believe."
Embry said hard work has helped the Lady Rockets grow more confident. He said a solid coaching staff and a supportive administration has helped solidify the program. He credits the players' love for the game, desire, and work ethic for helping pack an outfield wall with state championship signs. If things hold, the lady Rockets should have a chance this weekend to add another one to their collection.
"They have wanted it. They are hungry," Embry said. "New Hope had (the bull's eye) forever. They have had a great tradition. Coach (Cary) Shepherd and coach Beard have done a great job and won many, many, many state championships. I couldn't begin to tell you how many. That is where we want to be. That is what I tried to tell them when I took the job. You want the bull's eye. If you don't have the bull's eye, something is wrong."
Beard hopes her team learns from its experience against Wesley much like Neshoba Central learned from facing Sanders so many times over the years. She felt the way the Lady Rockets hit Sanders in the two games was the culmination of all of the matchups against Sanders since she was a fixture in the circle as a middle schooler.
"I am not going to take away from what coach Embry has done with this program," Beard said. "They hit the ball well and they do great things. Wesley is going to get better, but we're going to continue to get better, too. We have to evolve. I think we are at a really good starting point."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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