December 19, 2009 11:03:00 PM
Neither one can truly be labeled a "power hitter."
But that term is so limiting because Caitlyn Atkins and Haley Tutor can do so much more for their teams.
The Class 5A and Class 3A Mississippi High School Activities Association state titles New Hope and Hamilton high schools won this season are the final reward for all of their hard work and everything they contributed to their squads on and off the field.
For their accomplishments this season, Atkins and Tutor are The Commercial Dispatch Slow-pitch All-Area co-Players of the Year.
Both players agreed that their ability to settle into new or changed roles from the previous seasons was another piece to the puzzle that helped their teams win championships.
"One of my team goals was for us to win state and for me to end up batting over .500, and we accomplished both of those goals," Atkins said. "I think I played better than I expected myself to, and that at the end I really stepped up."
Atkins said relaxation was the key. She said she believed more in herself and didn''t get caught up in a power-hitting struggle on a team that featured two players -- Hannah Howell and Chauncia Willis -- with six home runs and another -- Katie Beth Dahlem -- with four.
"She just loves the game," Hamilton coach Lewis Earnest said. "She put in the time, worked hard for it, and it paid off for her."
Earnest said Atkins started the season as pitcher and was allowed to move to the outfield because her sister, Alison, moved into the circle and was able to throw strikes and to hit enough to contribute.
Alison Atkins'' effectiveness helped improve the Lions'' defense because Caitlyn''s athleticism was an added bonus in the outfield.
"She can run like a deer," Earnest said. "Her speed helps her a lot, too. We had her in the leadoff spot a big part of the year because she is going to get on base. She got on base a lot for our big hitters in the middle of the order and produced a lot of runs for us. Later in the year, it go to where she was hitting a lot of gappers and we had to move her down and put her in a power spot to drive in some runs."
Atkins paced Hamilton (19-9) with 43 runs scored, 51 hits, 10 doubles, and a .567 batting average. She also was fourth on the team in RBIs (24), second on the team in on-base percentage (.596), and fourth in slugging percentage (.733).
"We were worried moving her in the lineup might mess her up a little bit," Earnest said. "It didn''t. She just picked right up and kept on going."
New Hope High coach Tabitha Beard said Tutor worked well at the top of the lineup with Lauren Holifield. She said Tutor''s speed was an integral ingredient to the Lady Trojans'' march to a third consecutive slow-pitch state title, and 12th overall.
"She is just the type of player that when the game is on the line and you need something to happen, you want her to be there," Beard said. "She makes you smile, she makes you laugh, and she is the type of player you wish you had 10 of her. It would make your job a lot easier. She just has a way to calm the rest of the team down and pick the rest of the team up."
Beard said Tutor and the Lady Trojans struggled at the start of the season. But things slowly came around for New Hope (22-7), which weathered the offensive doldrums, personnel changes, and inexperience at several positions.
Tutor did her best to pick up the slack for the departure of seniors Victoria Culpepper, Kristen Harvey, and DeShuni Sanders. She assumed a larger defensive role in the outfield and showed she, too, could flash some leather with the best of them.
At the plate, she hit .527 with 19 RBIs, predominantly from the leadoff spot in the lineup, and had an on-base percentage of .666.
"She is a leader on and off the field," Beard said. "She has a way of getting the others to follow. When she was at the plate, you felt at ease because you knew something good was going to happen."
Tutor said stepping into a leadership role was natural for her because the team soon found itself down to two seniors -- Morgan Hardin and Empress Shirley -- who either weren''t on the team last season or didn''t play a key role in the 2008 championship.
She said she and Hardin emerged as leaders who helped the team come together and shake off the slow start.
Most of the time, Tutor proved to be the spark to the attack. On a team that found hitting contagious, especially in the last part of the season, Tutor''s ability to get on base started rally after rally that led to another state title.
"I felt comfortable (at leadoff) and I knew I could do it," Tutor said. "It felt good knowing that once you started something it didn''t end."
Even though the term "power hitter" doesn''t apply to Atkins and Tutor, they found one this season that better suits them: Champions.
"Proving people wrong we could do it (was most satisfying)," Tutor said. "I am glad we did come together as a team and won the state title."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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