New Hope’s Conerly Moody (10) leads a cheer in the dugout during her team’s victory over Pontotoc in the MHSAA Class 4A playoffs. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
April 25, 2018 1:45:39 AM
Nothing worked for Kenzie Ray.
Facing a pitching machine that was peppering softballs on the outside part of home plate, Ray couldn't connect Monday in practice. The New Hope High School junior didn't fare much better on her second bucket of balls, either.
"I didn't hit it at all," Ray said. "I could not hit it."
Ordinarily, Ray's lack of success in practice might have left her lacking confidence against Pontotoc's Mary Kate Butler, who New Hope believed was going to work the outside corner to right-handed hitters. To add to the drama, Ray, a right-handed hitter, stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the first inning.
Instead of doubting herself or being overwhelmed by the moment, Ray answered the challenge with confidence. Ray's three-run double in the first and two-run single in the third were part of a three-hit, five-RBI night Tuesday in New Hope's 10-8 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A playoff series at Lady Trojan Field. Game 2 of the series will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Pontotoc. If needed, Game 3 will follow approximately 30 minutes after the previous game.
"I am about to hit this ball as hard as I can," Ray said when asked what she was thinking prior to her first at-bat. "I knew I had to hit the ball to right field. I have to score my runners. It is my job."
Ray went to the plate humming the words to her walk-out song, "Don't Stop Believin' " by Journey. She said she doesn't know why but hitting with the bases loaded relaxes her, which allowed her to take the pitch on the outside corner and drive it into the right-center field gap.
"That is one of the first balls I have hit to the right side," Ray said.
Ray said she worked on hitting balls to right field with her father, Calvin, for two-and-a-half hours Monday after practice. She said her lack of success off the pitching machine motivated her to do better because she knew the top five hitters in the lineup were going to get on and she was going to have runners to drive home.
That was the case again in the third, when Ray singled home two more runs as part of a six-run outburst that gave New Hope a 10-5 lead.
"That's the best she's hit in a long time," New Hope coach Bobby Taylor said. "If she takes the ball that way, she hits good. If she tries to pull it, she doesn't hit good. She got two big hits. She had three, but she had two big hits."
Ray said her second at-bat was similar to the first one in that she felt she had to "grow up and hit the ball." Even though her second hit went to the left side, Ray returned to form on her third at-bat with a single just inside first base for her final hit.
Alex Melton had two hits and two RBIs. She also pitched the final two innings in relief of starter Kiley Cox. Charlie Clanton, Megan James, Cox, Anna Prince, and Allysa Smith also had hits for New Hope (13-8).
"The last three games it is like a completely different team," said Taylor, whose team beat New Albany in two games in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs. "We're not making any errors and tonight they hit the ball. That's the best they have hit it in a while. It is getting back to where we started the first part of the year."
Taylor feels the Lady Trojans are starting to get back into a rhythm after rainouts prevented the them from finding their stride. In preparing for Butler, a right-hander, Taylor said he "cranked" the pitching machine up to help prepare his players for Butler's velocity and her outside pitches to get them to go to right field.
Taylor said he was going to try to let Cox finish the game, but he opted to pull her after a leadoff double by Sky Vaughn in the sixth. By then, Cox had thrown more than 100 pitches, so Taylor called on Melton. The senior, who started the game at third base, allowed Vaughn to score on a fielder's choice, but the Lady Trojans retired the runner at second base to end the inning.
In the seventh, second baseman Kensley Woolbright made a running backhanded grab on a pop up behind second base to the shortstop side of the bag for the second out. Following an infield hit, Melton retired Butler to give New Hope the series lead.
"It's my job to go out there and do what I have got to do and be the best I can be and work hard for my team," Melton said.
Cox scattered eight hits in five-plus innings. She walked five and struck out one, but she mixed her pitches well and used a changeup to keep Pontotoc off balance.
Cox also worked out of trouble in key spots. In the fourth, she recorded a pop up with two runners on base to escape further damage. In the fifth, Gabby Manning made a nice running catch in right-center field for the first out. Melton then fielded a bunt and made a strong throw to first for the second out.
"I was glad my team was backing me up," Cox said. "I was more confident with my defense behind me tonight. I was comfortable throwing with (assistant coach Ginny Swedenburg) asked me to throw with my defense behind me."
New Hope also appears to have received a lift from Taylor's decision to let the players listen to music during batting practice. Melton and Ray said the team listens to a mix of today's hits and songs by Bruno Mars on Pandora.
If Ray has her druthers, she just might ask the younger players who are in charge of song selection to play "Don't Stop Believin' " so the Lady Trojans can keep the second season going for as long as possible.
"Believe that you can do this," Ray said she was thinking before her first at-bat. "I am confident. I have all of the confidence in the world I can hit the ball and help my team achieve the goal of winning in the playoffs. I think I can do it."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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