October 12, 2010 8:09:00 AM
HAMILTON -- The Hamilton High School slow-pitch softball is right on schedule.
Challenged earlier in the year not to be the first team in 17 years to fail to advance to the playoffs, the Lady Lions are now one step away from playing for another state title.
The big difference this season is Hamilton (18-10) has only two seniors -- Caitlyn Atkins and Anna Imel -- and starts five freshmen as it continues to defend its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 2A state crown.
Hamilton will try to take the next step at 5 p.m. today when it plays at Mantachie in a best-of-three North Half title series. The winner will play the winner of the Enterprise 5-Union series at 11 a.m. Saturday at the V.A. Fields in Jackson.
Hamilton advanced to the North Half final by sweeping series against East Union and East Webster.
Atkins, who shared The Dispatch Slow-Pitch Player of the Year honors last year with New Hope High''s Haley Tutor, said this time of season is a rite of passage for the Lady Lions, no matter who is on the team, and it is natural for them to play their best ball.
"Something just kind of clicks in our mind that this could be the end and we really have to step it up," said Atkins, a left-handed pitcher. "We''re really living up to last year''s standards. We really wanted to go back. Everybody was like, ''Oh, you are losing a lot of seniors and you can''t do it.'' We wanted to prove everybody wrong. That was the main focus for this year, and that''s Anna and I tried to put in the back of everybody''s minds, that we can do it even though we are young."
A year ago, Hamilton went 19-9 and won its first slow-pitch title since 2004. It lost to Clarkdale in two games in the 2008 Class 2A championship.
The victory sent seniors Chelsea McDaniel, Hannah Howell, Shelby Savage, Katie Beth Dahlem, Chauncia Willis, and Lyndsey Williams out with a title and left Atkins and Imel to help pick up the pieces. Both players admit the team has had plenty of ups and downs, but they feel the team has come together at the right time.
The fact that Hamilton scored 24 runs in a key district victory against Hatley to earn second place in the district and that Atkins has found her home run stroke after not hitting any earlier in her high school career shows the Lady Lions have "flushed" their mistakes and are ready to shine again.
"We are just trying to stay pumped up," said Imel, who came up with the cheer "flush" to wash away any errors or depressed feelings. "If we stay pumped up we play as good as anybody we play."
Hamilton coaches Lewis Earnest and Jason Cobb said the team started fast in winning the Monroe County Tournament, hit a sluggish patch, and regrouped in time to find its stride.
"The last two weeks we have finally settled in and finally figured out where we need to be," said Earnest, whose team lost twice to Mantachie in the regular season.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.