October 22, 2014 10:11:46 AM
"Don't be in a rush."
Kayla McKinion didn't hear the advice offered to her by one of the fans of the Neshoba Central slow-pitch softball team on Tuesday night. You couldn't blame the junior outfielder for being locked in. After all, the bases were loaded and a short right-field porch at Lady Trojan Field beckoned. The only thing McKinion had to do was be patient, pick out her pitch, and let the hours of practice and training help her do the rest.
McKinion did just that, delivering a grand slam that helped send two-time reigning state champion Neshoba Central to a 24-7 victory against New Hope in Game 1 of their Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A/6A North State title series. The Lady Rockets swept the series with a 20-3 victory in Game 2.
"(The spark) hasn't been there in earlier games, but we come to face them every year, almost, and we know it usually is a challenge, so we come prepared," McKinion said. "We were really motivated. We play them all the time, and we just know we have to be."
With the wins, Neshoba Central (33-1), which also has won the past two Class 5A fast-pitch state crowns, advances to face South State champion West Harrison for the overall state title Saturday at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland.
New Hope ends its season 16-15.
"We work on (hitting to the right side) all year long," Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry said. "We have been very successful doing it, and the kids have bought into doing it that way. This field is short, so you have a few home runs there that are flyballs on our field. The kids did a great job. We really hit the ball tonight."
McKinion said she can tune most people out, but then she laughed and said there are some people, especially ones she loves dearly, she can't tune out. On Tuesday, though, she and the Lady Rockets didn't allow anything to distract them. Outside of the top of the first inning in Game 1 when it didn't score, Neshoba Central peppered the fence at Lady Trojan Field and sent balls deep into the night and over the trees behind the fence. Six of the team's eight home runs in Game 1 were to the right field, where the fence is shorter due to the road that runs in front of New Hope High. The Lady Rockets added seven more home runs, including five in an 11-run second inning, in Game 2 to fuel the sweep.
McKinion, Kayla Robertson, Ali Pike, Madalyn McMahon, and Meg Martin had two home runs, while Hailey Lunderman, Hannah Hall, Taylor Harrison, Meshay Jimmie, and Mallory Tucker each had one. Not all of the home runs were well struck. On some, the Lady Rockets appeared to reach for the ball or hit what appeared to be pop ups to right field. But Embry said the hitting his players do to all fields in practice made it easier for them to turn their bodies and to shift their weight so they could drive pitches over the short porch.
"We work so hard on (hitting the ball to the right side)," McKinion said. "(Coach Embry) says, 'You better hit it to the right side.' ... If he wants it in right, you better hit it to right. Us knowing it was a short field in right, that helped us to come and walk around the ball and want to hit it even harder out there."
McKinion said she and her teammates remembered last season when they came to Columbus and used a similar approach to right field in 12-1 and 14-4 victories. Kaila Willis hit the team's only home run in Game 2. Thirteen of the team's hits in Game 1 were singles. The Lady Rockets had 11 more singles in Game 2.
On Tuesday, the result wound up being the same thanks to a lineup from 1-10 that can play long ball with the state's best teams.
"Once one hits it, we get pumped and it happens over and over again," McKinion said.
Alayna Friesen, Hope Williams, and Kerrington Bradford hit home runs for New Hope in Game 1. The Lady Trojans had 12 hits and played well in the opener, but the Lady Rockets, who Embry said have seen inside pitching all season, adjusted. Neshoba Central also adjusted when New Hope's Williams and Anna Kate O'Bryant threw flatter pitches, or ones without as much arc, to try to disrupt the hitters' timing.
New Hope coach Tabitha Beard liked the fight her team showed all night, especially in Game 2, when the Lady Trojans scored all of their runs in the top of the fifth. Kelsey Gerhart had a two-run single and O'Bryant had an RBI single in the five-hit inning.
"What do you say about it? You just go with it," New Hope coach Tabitha Beard said. "You wonder how in the world you have girls that weigh 50 pounds hitting it 300 feet. There is nothing you can do about it.
"We had great moments in both games. You come out hot and (their home run hitting) will deflate anybody. I tried to make them focus on not quitting. I felt they did that a little bit at the end of the first game. ... I try to make them understand there always is going to be that moment in life when your back is against the wall and things are bad, and your character is defined by how you react.
"You have to look at my team and where they came from. We are the top four in the state. That is a great accomplishment. I want them to focus on that. I don't want them to focus on tonight. I want them to focus on what they did (beating Madison Central and Warren Central to get to the North State title series). They did great things. They have nothing to hang their heads about. They have a lot to be proud of."
n In other softball action Tuesday night, Smithville swept reigning Class 1A state champion Hamilton to win their Class 1A North State championship series and advance to the state title series.
Smithville won Game 1 19-6 and took Game 2 36-24. According to The Monroe Journal's Melissa Meador, the teams combined to hit 31 home runs.
The victory helped Smithville round out a strong showing by Monroe County teams. Amory (Class 4A), Nettleton (Class 3A), Hatley (Class 2A), and Smithville (Class 1A) will represent the county in the state championship series. Hatley will play East Webster for the title. Amory will face Newton County, while Smithville will face Sebastopol and Nettleton will take on Philadelphia.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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