October 20, 2014 9:00:12 AM
The New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team couldn't have allowed itself to sink in the quicksand Saturday.
After suffering a 10-run loss to Warren Central in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A/6A North State playoff series, New Hope could have thought things weren't meant to be and started to look forward to a long nap on a four-hour bus ride back to Columbus.
Instead, the Lady Trojans opted to make a day of it in Vicksburg. The decision helped New Hope (16-13) rally for 10-0 and 21-10 victories in the final two games of the series to keep its season alive. New Hope will try to take the next step at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday when it plays host to two-time reigning state champion Neshoba Central at Lady Trojan Field.
The Lady Trojans have lost four-straight playoff series to the Lady Rockets in slow- and fast-pitch softball dating back to 2012.
The victories were especially sweet for New Hope coach Tabitha Beard considering she has a team with only one senior and two juniors. The Lady Trojans have three times as many middle-school age players as they do juniors and seniors. That inexperience and youth has played a part in an up-and-down season in which New Hope has lost to some of the state's top softball programs (Hamilton, Nettleton, East Webster, and Eupora) but has found a way to rebound from a slow start.
"We had 11 errors in Game 1," Beard said. "I think bus lag from the four-hour trip had a lot to do with it. We came out flat and I watched us make mistakes we haven't made in a month because we have gotten so much better as time has went on and then I saw it all fall apart in that game. We had to make them understand what we came to do was still there. I think they kind of got together and rallied around each other and woke up a little bit and got their legs under them and hit the ground running in Game 2."
Beard said New Hope didn't hit the ball badly in Game 1. Kelsey Gerhart (two doubles), Kerrington Bradford (home run), Hope Williams (double), Lanora Abrams (double), and Alayna Friesen, Meredith Woolbright, and Tamia Bouldes (singles) contributed to the Lady Trojans' nine-hit attack. But beard said New Hope did a better job staying patient at the plate and sticking to its game plan in the next two games. The result was 40 hits (15 in Game 2) in two victories that propelled the Lady Trojans to the comeback.
In Game 2, Alex Melton was 2-for-3 with two singles and a sacrifice fly, Gerhart was 2-for-4 with two singles, Williams was 2-for-3 with two singles and a walk, Abrams was 2-for-3 with two singles and a walk, Friesen was 2-for-3 with a double, single, and walk, Woolbright was 2-for-3 with two singles, and Anna Kate O'Bryant was 3-for-3 with three singles.
In Game 3, Gerhart was 4-for-5 with four singles, Bradford was 4-for-4 with three singles, a home run and a walk, Williams was 3-for-5 with three singles, Friesen was 4-for-5 with three doubles and a home run, Woolbright was 2-for-5 with two singles, Bouldes was 3-for-3 with a sacrifice fly, Chelsey Ray was 2-for-4, and O'Bryant was 3-for-3 with a sacrifice fly.
"I got on them pretty hard after Game 1," Beard said. "Sometimes with this group it is back and forth, and sometimes they respond really well and take it and push forward and sometimes they kind of crumple. They had to understand what they had to do to move forward. Something I really tried to do was make them think about not me tell them what they needed to work on but they had to think about that. I was trying to teach them to fish. I was trying to teach them the process and make them a part of it."
Beard felt the Lady Trojans responded right from the start of the first inning in Game 2. As the home team, she said New Hope committed only one or two errors in the second game and didn't fall victim to the quicksand that has plagued it this season. Earlier this year, Beard said the team would commit an error or give up a walk and a hit and things would start to unravel. On Saturday, though, she said the Lady Trojans supported each other and made big plays when something didn't go right.
Beard also said Williams, a junior, was able to bounce back in the circle. She said Williams did a much better job sticking to the game plan against Warren Central. A shutout was the reward in Game 2 before the teams squared off in a back-and-forth Game 3. Beard said she knew her players were tired, but she encouraged them to believe in themselves to make it happen.
New Hope broke out to a six-run lead, only to see Warren Central hit a three-run home run to get right back into the game. Instead of buckling, Beard said New Hope responded in the next half inning by "killing the ball." The Lady Trojans' next big blow was a three-run home run by Friesen that came after an intentional walk to Bradford and a fielder's choice on a groundball by Williams.
"(Alayna's home run) is one to talk about because the ball looked like it could travel forever," Beard said.
Beard also praised seventh-grader Mackenzie Henry, who came in to play in the outfield after Abrams was hit in the hand with a thrown ball. Henry had a hit and made a catch in the outfield to help seal the comeback.
Beard said parents of the players stormed the field after the victories. She credited the fans for being loud and creating an atmosphere that has become common at New Hope softball games in the past five years. Despite losing 10 players to graduation in the past two years, Beard said this young group has come together nicely after a rocky start to put the program in position to win its first state championship since the 2011 slow-pitch season.
"They could have been the team they were at the beginning of the season, but they chose to fight," Beard said. "It was beautiful thing to see them fight that hard. The parents were cheering and you tell their fans were like, 'Oh my gosh, will they just shut up.' They were loud and crazy. ... It was a great experience."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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