May 16, 2014 10:06:21 AM
HAMILTON -- Sophomores aren't supposed to be leaders.
But Alison Atkins, Taylor Hyland, Cheyenne Logan, Raimi Bryan, and Jordyn Jackson responded when pressed into service in 2012 for the Hamilton High School fast-pitch softball team. The program was in transition. Coming off a 2011 season in which it failed to advance to the playoffs, Hamilton also had to adjust to a new coach, Bryan Loague, who took over for Jason Cobb.
Loague worked with slow-pitch softball coach Lewis Earnest, so he knew the players. Still, he admitted it took time for everyone to get on the same page following a few minor changes and after he and his assistant coaches had to stop and explain how they wanted things done to the players several times.
"They were 10th-graders and they weren't really supposed to be leaders," Loague said.
Today, those sophomores are seniors and have been there and done that. Coming off a slow-pitch state title in the fall, Hamilton (22-9) will try to complete the season sweep this weekend when it takes on Bogue Chitto for the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A state title at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland. Game 1 of the best-of-three series will be at 6 tonight. Game 2 will be at 10 a.m. Saturday. Game 3 would follow, if needed.
Loague said his sophomore "leaders" of 2012 have a much better idea what they need to do and how they need to do it. He said the seniors have helped set the tone for the Lady Lions to claim another trophy after they experienced their share of ups and downs following the slow-pitch season.
"This bunch has a lot of good senior leadership," Loague said. "They don't cuss and yell at each other. They lead the way by showing rather than screaming."
In 2012, Atkins said Hamilton had grown stronger and more together en route to the Class 2A North State title series, where it lost to Baldwyn. This season, sophomore Hailee Jones, who was an eighth-grader on the 2012 team, said the Lady Lions said the team has grown even closer together because the players get along with each other better, despite many of them being in different classes.
"I think it is because everybody gives the effort," Jones said. "Some of the other times we have had nobody has given effort to fix anything whether it was on the field or off the field. That was half of our problem. But everybody has stepped up and given effort to make our team better on and off the field and supported each other and kept each other up. Whenever people are down, we keep them up. That really helps as a team and as a friend."
Loague and Jones an ideal example came against Smithville in the top of the seventh inning in the Class 1A North State playoffs. Logan, the team's pitcher, was struggling with walks late in a game (seven walks in the last two innings) and wasn't sure if she could finish the game. Loague said he went to the circle thinking he was going to change pitchers. He went to the circle and saw Logan was emotional and unable to give him a clear answer if she thought she could finish the inning. Unable to get a response from his pitcher, he turned to the players assembled around him and asked them. After he left, he said Logan needed only three pitches to get a comebacker to the circle that she fielded and ran over to first base to end it.
Jones said the meeting showed how well the Lady Lions have come together to have the backs of their teammates.
"When he asked us, me and Allie were standing there and Cheyenne was in the middle and Raimi, Taylor, and Addie Thompson were on the other side," Jones said. "Cheyenne couldn't answer because she was teared up. That's when me and Allie right at the same time said, 'We think you can do it.' Every one of us was telling her how we believed in her and that we didn't think she was going to give up. Cheyenne isn't going to let our team down. She is going to give the effort as long as we believe in her, and I think every one of us do."
Jones said effort and desire are the differences this season compared to two years ago. She said it makes it a lot easier when all of the players want to win a championship and to play to the best of their abilities.
For Loague, the evolution of that mind-set has been a welcome sight. He said the players know what is expected out of them and yelling isn't used to instruct or to correct. He admits some days have been tougher than others, but he said the players have put the age differences and the typical day-to-day issues behind them because they want to win.
"We hit a wall about the end of the slow-pitch season,"
Loague said. "Since then we have been better. We had major issues at the end of the slow-pitch season. There was a lot of controversy on the team --major issues that nobody knew about and we didn't talk about. From that day on, though, we have gotten a lot better and a lot closer as a team. This bunch probably plays about as well together as they ever have."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.