By Tony Tsoukalas / Sports Writer
The Meridian Star
Neshoba Central head softball coach refers Trae Embry refers to the East Central region of the state as “softball heaven.”
After three local teams took home state championships in 2012, few can argue with him. This year, Embry’s Rockets finished the season ranked No. 1 in the state as the Class 5A slow-pitch state champions. The area also saw the Southeast Lauderdale take home the 3A slow-pitch crown, as well as Clarkdale fast-pitch winning the 2A title in the spring.
“There is nothing like this area,” Embry said. “Every night you play, the other team can beat you. There are just so many teams with talent. Almost every team we played had an excellent year.”
In his first year as head coach, Embry did not know what to expect from his team. He knew they had talent, but up against a daunting schedule, he would need to see how they performed before passing any judgment.
The Rockets took some time to gel early on, losing to Quitman and then Newton County early in the season. Neshoba Central would even lose Mallory Tucker on Sept. 11 in the game against New Hope, when the starting pitcher tore ligaments on the top of her foot causing her to miss the remainder of the season.
In need of a new pitcher and some momentum to their season, the Rockets turned to Mesha Jimmie to fill the void.
“From that point when Tucker got hurt, we really didn’t know what we were going to do,” Embry said. “The next week, I made a decision to go with Mesha. Mesha ended up going 14-1 on the mound for us.”
The Rockets would continue to improve going 27-5, including the state championship series, were they swept Wayne county 13-6, 2-1 to take home the 5A crown. The win propelled Neshoba Central to No. 1 in the state in the final Jackson Clarion-Ledger rankings. With only two departing seniors from this year’s team, Embry said he expects to be right in the thick of things come next season as well.
“I want to do it again,” Embry said. “If we didn’t have high expectation, then I am in the wrong profession. When we started, I expected to win. I would think, heading into next year, we’d have high expectations with the team we have.”
After a runner-up performance in the 2011 state championship game, Mack Fanning and the Southeast Lauderdale slow-pitch team were determined to go the extra step in 2012 and bring the school its first slow-pitch state title.
“I think last year’s run left us with a little hungrier,” Fanning said. “We had that extra desire and will to win.”
The Tigers did just that this season, finishing the year 25-9 and capturing the 3A state title in dramatic fashion.
The Tigers chose the motto “lean on me” this season, and at times, the saying couldn’t have been anymore true. Southeast players rallied behind up-and-coming players Megan Chatham, Taylor Powell and Timara Trussell, as well as leadership from Denisha Knight, Katie Dawson and Brianna Roulier.
That togetherness came in handy during the Tigers return trip to Jackson this season. After losing the first game of a three-game series against South Pontotoc 15-11, the Tigers showed no quit.
Down 14-11 in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 2, Dori Timms and Chatham strung together back-to-back singles to begin the inning. After a fly out from Dawson, Jasmine Bush delivered a double in the gap to cut the lead to 14-12. Two batters later with the bases loaded, Knight delivered a single up the middle to tie the game for the Tigers. Nancy Williams then brought Knight home on a ground ball past the shortstop to win the game.
The momentum carried on into Game 3, where the Tigers climbed out of an early 4-0 hole and held on to beat South Pontotoc 9-6 and deliver the first state championship in school history.
“These girls never fade,” Fanning said. “That comeback came from self-determination. That was our goal this season, to go up there and be on top. Fortunately we were able to accomplish that and win the first softball state title in school history.”
At Clarkdale High school, softball is king, or rather, queen.
Always a contender, the Bulldogs are regularly in the mix for state-titles. However, after losing star pitcher Alex Smith from the 2010-11 season, it wasn’t clear how Clarkdale softball would perform during the fast-pitch season.
It actually wasn’t until the third week of the season, during the Harrison Central Tournament when it became apparent the Bulldogs could be good — really good.
“We really saw it then when we beat three really good teams,” said then-assistant coach Britt Bennett. “We beat Poplarville, who had one of the best pitchers in the state, we beat George County and St. Patrick’s, who had put us out of the playoffs the year before.
“On the way back from that tournament, all of the coaches were pretty much talking to one another saying ‘we are going to be pretty ok this year.’”
Clarkdale continued its success into district play rallying behind a talented lineup at the plate, as well as a solid performance from Abby Roberts in the circle. Roberts made the switch from catcher to pitcher in order to replace the departing Smith.
“Abby just worked her but off all winter to get ready for the season,” Bennett said. “She was out there working every day, and she just willed her way into become a good pitcher for us.”
It wasn’t just Roberts, as the Bulldogs worked their way as a team to a 31-3 record and as well as a 2A state championship.
With six departing seniors from last year’s title-winning team, Bennett said it would be a challenge to repeat as champions. But if history serves as any indication, the Bulldogs will be right back in contention this season as well.
“We are really excited about next year,” Bennett said. “We are working hard, lifting weights and working on pitching. We will have another tight-knit group next year, and hopefully we can be successful.”