June 19, 2010 10:51:00 PM
Armed with two dominant pitchers, Tabitha Beard entered her fourth season in charge of New Hope High School fast-pitch softball looking to add a state title to the slow-pitch hardware the Lady Trojans have added since 2006.
The fast-pitch team''s run ended in the second round of the playoffs to Hernando, a postseason fate similar to its pressure-packed duels with Cleveland in Beard''s last two years in charge.
Beard jokes about the "second-round curse," but her team is in a position most of the area''s larger programs would love to be.
Through ninth-grade dynamo Lauren Holifield, who led the team in batting average, and eighth-grader D.J. Sanders, who was 12-3 in the pitching circle, the Lady Trojans went 22-7 this season and clinched a second straight district title.
With just one senior on the roster, Beard, The Dispatch''s All-Area Large Schools Coach of the Year, turned the team''s starlets and a solid junior class into one of the best teams in the coverage area.
Beard wasn''t surprised what her team accomplished this season, as most of the players have been a part of the program since she took over for Cary Shepherd.
Leaning on her two youngest players in the circle and at the plate, however, isn''t a scenario coaches favor.
Sanders and Holifield interchanged between third base and the circle, giving Beard an anchor on the left side of the infield and an effective pitcher at all times.
Holifield has a seven-pitch arsenal, while Sanders brought velocity. Both drove in more than 20 runs and had the two highest batting averages on the team.
"As rare as it is, it''s sometimes hard as a coach," Beard said, "because when they mess up I still have to realize they''re just babies. I''m amazed sometimes when I look at those two. They accent each other so well.
"Last year, we put the brunt of the pitching load on Lauren. I think D.J. saw that and knew she had to work harder to help take the load off Lauren."
Beard recalls watching Sanders play as a 9-year-old, spotting the natural ability she would help mold into a varsity Class 5A pitcher by the age of 12.
"She eats the game up," Beard said.
Having two impact players under the age of 14 is enviable, but having both of those players pitch lights-out was far from the norm. Some teams are lucky to have one dominant pitcher, much less two.
That foundation serves as the base for Beard''s defensive-minded approach to winning softball. She has spent her four seasons in charge preaching defense in both softball seasons, but in 2010 the fast-pitch team''s offense evolved.
Small-ball emerged as a flourishing method of scoring runs, and Beard said the team''s focus to detail allowed it to make the progression.
"It moved us past some of the teams we had in the past," Beard said. "I felt confident one through nine we could lay down that bunt any time we needed them to."
With Holifield and Sanders entrenched as key contributors, there was little pressure on Empress Shirley, the team''s only senior, and juniors Anna Holley and Haley Tutor.
Shirley, in her first season as a starter, batted .333 and had eight doubles as designated player. Her batting average was the third highest on the team.
Holley, a second baseman, hit .333 with 18 sacrifice bunts.
The team dynamic and top-to-bottom production made coaching easier for Beard and her staff.
"Talking to other coaches, they''ve said, ''You can let your girls go and they''ll do what they have to do,'' " Beard said. "If I wasn''t there, they''d still know what to do and would do it with the same intensity."
With virtually everyone back for next season, Beard believes New Hope is close to claiming its first fast-pitch title. The team was state runner-up in 2006.
"We''re right there, and you can almost taste the fast-pitch title, but we''ve got to finish better," Beard said. "When you have two young pitchers at the level D.J. and Lauren are at, it''s exciting to think about the future. But I have a great junior class. As a coach you know how well they can do.
"The end result is that state title, and I would love for that junior class to have it. They''ve been the group that when I took over, they were eighth-graders. I''ve watched them mature into great kids, great players, and great young women."
1. Bulldogs working to keep Abram on the field this fall COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Columbus Christian's Webber heads to Mississippi College HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. New Hope's Jennings chooses EMCC HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
4. Starkville High's Thompson signs with Mississippi College HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
5. Bulldogs finish fourth at Old Waverly COLLEGE SPORTS