October 12, 2010 8:12:00 AM
D.J. Sanders has been playing softball for so long it she seems like she is a seasoned veteran.
If you didn''t know better, you wouldn''t believe Sanders is only a freshman on the New Hope High School slow-pitch softball team.
The fact that Sanders has been playing fast-pitch softball since she was 8 years old and slow-pitch softball since she was in the sixth grade helps explain why she handles all of the expectations and her duties at shortstop and as the Lady Trojans'' cleanup hitter with the steadiness and consistency of a much older player.
"I am not real sure there is too much I could throw at D.J. that already hasn''t been thrown at her," New Hope High coach Tabitha Beard said. "She carried the weight of the team on her shoulders in fast-pitch season and did a beautiful job. D.J. doesn''t show emotion. She has learned to play above them."
Sanders will try to do her part starting at 5 p.m. today to help New Hope (22-4) advance to play for another state title. To do that, New Hope will have to beat Pearl in its best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A matchup. The winner will advance to face the winner of the Brookhaven-Picayune series at 11 a.m. Saturday at the V.A. Fields in Jackson.
New Hope, the defending Class 5A champion, has won three consecutive state crowns (the other two came in Class 4A) and 12 overall. The Lady Trojans have reached another North Half final thanks to their trademark defense and timely hitting. The contributions have come from a senior class that includes Haley Tutor, Jessica Moore, Anna Holley, and Brandi and Brittney Brantley all the way down to younger players like sophomore Lauren Holifield and freshmen like Sanders and Kaitlin Bradley.
"D.J. is so matter of fact. There is no hiding or beating around the bush," Beard said. "It is all there. She is an amazing athlete. To look at everything she has done, she still strives to be better every day."
Sanders might have been a little too hard on herself when she said she feels she has "gotten worse" from last season to this season. She admits last year was easier because she feels she is "thinking about things too much" and that it "isn''t natural."
"Last year, being an eighth-grader, they are not expecting you to be good," Sanders said. "Now that I am up here I am supposed to be good and I have stuff I am supposed to do and I have other people looking up to me. I don''t want to say pressure because pressure isn''t really an excuse, but it makes you work hard and try to do better."
Beard said she had to sit Sanders and a few of her teammates down to remind them they can''t be content and they always have to work hard to try to accomplish more. She said the reminder connected and has helped Sanders to be a key contributor who Beard said is "all business" on the field.
"When you have an athlete like D.J. or Lauren or these girls who have played since they were little, that makes my job easier," said Beard, who credited Donnie Sanders and DeShuni Sanders, a former New Hope High and current East Mississippi Community College standout, for helping to mold D.J. "When you''re around it all of the time it is in your blood and you love it."
Sanders expects more from herself than her coaches or teammates. She said that mind-set comes from the fact she has been immersed in softball for so long. She said she loves the sport and plays it with a care-free joy that is infectious.
It helps Sanders has an athlete''s grace and makes difficult movements at shortstop look easy. She is equally adept at the plate and uses her wiry strength to drive the ball like a power hitter. She also is a student of the game who can take balls to right field and challenge defenses who try to take part of the field away.
Sanders also recognizes all of the encouragement and constructive criticism she receives from family members and friends is another source of motivation she will use to meet her expectations.
Beard said she has discussed future plans with D.J., who dreams about playing softball at Mississippi State. She said there is no reason why she won''t be able to accomplish everything she wants.
"She is focused on what she wants," Beard said. "She is doing all of the right things."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.