September 25, 2010 1:15:00 AM
Jessica Dickens has believed in her team from the start of the season.
The first-year Starkville Academy head fast-pitch softball coach said in the preseason and in the beginning and the middle of the regular season that the Lady Volunteers had the potential to be one of the state''s best teams if they stayed focused on offense, defense, and in the circle.
Starkville Academy proved their coach right Wednesday, and now it hopes to do it again Saturday.
Thanks to victories against Magnolia Heights and Madison-Ridgeland Academy in the North AAA Tournament, Starkville Academy has secured a spot in the AAA State Tournament next weekend. On Saturday, the Lady Volunteers will be one of four teams remaining from the North that will fight for seeding for the state tournament. Starkville Academy will take on Pillow Academy, with the winner to face the winner of the Magnolia Heights-MRA game later in the day.
"It is very exciting for everyone involved," said Dickens, whose team is going to the state tournament for the first time in five years. "We did a good thing for the school. Magnolia Heights put us out (of the North Half tournament last year), so it was very sweet to beat them in the first round."
Last year, Heritage Academy finished third at the North Half tournament but didn''t advance because only the top two teams moved on. This season, with the format changed back to the top four teams advancing, Starkville Academy will enter the weekend knowing its season will continue past Saturday.
The Lady Volunteers used timely hitting, solid defense, and quality pitching to extend their season. Julianne Jackson had a two-run double and Lauren Ware had a two-run home run the the victory against Magnolia Heights, the first time Starkville Academy has won at Senatobia.
Against MRA, Mary Austin Barber had three hits and helped spark a two-run rally in the seventh. Bailey Wofford had an RBI double that deflected off the glove of the left fielder to score the first run. Jackson''s RBI double scored what proved to be the winning run. She then worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the seventh inning, retiring MRA''s No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. Wofford, the catcher, made the final out with a fine running catch on a ball down the first-base line.
"Our bats were pretty consistent and we just made the routine plays," Dickens said. "We only made one error in two games. When we don''t make errors, our sticks are usually there for us. We just stayed focused the whole gave and didn''t give up anything unearned."
Dickens said there are about five teams in the conference that could beat anybody on any day. Even though the Lady Volunteers were the fifth seed, she didn''t feel the victories against the No. 1 and the No. 1 seeds were dramatic upsets. Instead, she feels both results validated what she has been saying about her cub all season.
"We have the ability to be the best team in the conference and in the state," Dickens said. "It is all a matter of being mentally focused. At this point in the season it is a matter of who plays and who wants it the most."
Dickens feels her players want even more. By no means does she feel the Lady Volunteers are "satisfied" about getting to the state tournament. She feels they have more to accomplish.
"The key for us Saturday is to win the first game," Dickens said. "We can''t worry about anyone else. We just have to stay focused. If we do that we definitely can beat anybody there is."
Starkville Academy will be one of three local teams in playoff action Saturday.
In North AA, Oak Hill Academy will take on Kirk Academy on Saturday morning, while Hebron Christian will play Delta Academy in North A at Bayou Academy.
The Lady Raiders advanced to the postseason thanks to two regular-season victories against Winston Academy. Coach Marion Bratton said his team is fortunate to have reached the postseason considering all of the injuries it has had to overcome.
The latest injury, a torn left quad by pitcher Mamie Allen, left Oak Hill Academy with only one varsity pitcher, freshman Maegan Ellis, who already was playing with an ailing hip/back injury. Allen, who went down prior to Aug. 25, returned Sept. 13 to help Oak Hill Academy beat Winston Academy. The victory was part of a four-game winning streak that helped the Lady Raiders reach the weekend.
"My girls stepped up and played well for us to make it possible for us to be in the playoffs," Bratton said. "We''re like a rubber band right now. We don''t need to have it snap."
Bratton isn''t sure how long Allen will be able to go Saturday, or how much pain she will be able to endure. If Allen can pitch extended innings, Bratton said it would allow the Lady Raiders to keep their best defense intact, which would give them the best chance to win.
If Oak Hill Academy coach do that, there is no telling what will happen.
"My seniors (Anne Stevens, Mary Helon Hays, Abby Falkner, and Paige Dawkins) have done a real good job stepping up and trying to lead us through this time," Bratton said. "They have helped out with key hits. They have stayed constant, while the rest of the girls have stepped up and scored some runs when we needed to."
District champion Hebron Christian defeated Oak Hill Academy 11-0 on Monday. It was scheduled to play Winston Academy on Thursday in a game coach Cass Tapley said was going to be "just for fun." He even said it was likely he would allow his players to coach the game. Unfortunately, there were no umpires for the varsity game, so Tapley said the teams played for fun and ended up tied 3-3.
Hebron Christian (21-9) will enter the playoffs coming off an 8-0 finish in district play. That unblemished slate includes a pair of one-run victories against Kemper Academy. In the latest 2-1 victory, seniors Cathryn Moore and Magen Tapley had run-scoring hits to provide all of the offense the Lady Eagles needed in support of pitcher Chloe Tapley.
"We are all real excited being 8-0 in the district," Moore said. "We have never done that before, and we all had to step up. The seniors (Moore, Tapley, Hillary Arnold, Rachel Faprassao, Prysilla Skelton, Briitany Ousley, and Jessica Fleming) had to step up and play our ''A'' game. This is our last year, so we want to go out with a bang. I am really proud of how we have played, and I hope we can continue to play like that through the playoffs."
Moore said the Lady Eagles haven''t surprised themselves by how well they have come together. Instead, she said the team always believed in itself and knew it could play with the state''s best teams if it had everything working.
"We are all really confident to play Delta Academy," Moore said. "We are going to do everything we can to win North Half. We are definitely capable of that. We''re going to keep hitting like we have and have our defense and our pitching pull through for us."
Tapley hopes this is the year the Lady Eagles can push through and make it to the state tournament. It would be a fitting accomplishment for a group of seniors who have "raised the bar" and helped establish Hebron Christian as one of the state''s top fast-pitch programs.
"There are some really good teams down there, but I know it can be the year (the team gets to the state tournament) if we play as well as we can," Tapley said.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.