Since 2000, Newton County (Decatur, Miss.)
has won six state fastpitch softball titles and with everyone returning from the 2011 title-winning team, the Cougars are heavy favorites to garner their seventh Mississippi 4A state title in 12 seasons.
"We do a lot of things well – pitch, hit and play defense, but we're the hunted team this year," said coach Justin Chaney, honored as the MaxPreps Medium Schools Coach of the year in 2011
. "I do like our chances, but we still must execute."
While Chaney's team has everyone back from last year's championship team, they are still very young. Actually, they give a new meaning to "youth movement." By the time half the roster reaches their senior season, that string of titles since the millennium could be a dozen: Nineteen of the Cougars' players are sophomores or younger.
Like most schools in Mississippi, the Newton County School District allows seventh- and eighth-graders to compete at the varsity level and the Cougars make the most of the allowance. In winning 34 of 36 games last season and his third title in seven seasons, Chaney's squad had no seniors. Four of his regular starters were eighth-graders and a fifth eighth-grader saw considerable playing time.
The Cougars finished the 2011 season ranked No. 25 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Rankings presented by the Army National Guard and start the 2012 season ranked No. 7 in this week's Xcellent 25
This year's team, which features MaxPreps All-American catcher Shelby Bishop
and Emily Davis
(named Mississippi's Player of the Year by several daily newspapers), isn't much older than the 2011 squad. Three seniors will be joined by five sophomores, seven freshmen, two eighth-graders and a trio of seventh-graders.
Chaney calls two of his seniors – Davis and Bishop - special.
Davis batted .504 with eight home runs and 45 RBIs in addition to scoring 54 times. In addition she was 18-0 and fashioned a 1.76 ERA in 107 innings as the team's No. 1 pitcher. She also has a 4.0 GPA and has committed to Gulf Coast Community College.
Bishop, who Chaney says he wouldn't trade for anyone in Mississippi, batted .531 with nine doubles, four triples and seven home runs. She also had 42 RBIs and 59 runs scored. She has signed with Delta State.
Toss in a pair of those youngsters, now-freshmen Darby Bishop
and Ashton Lampton
, and the Cougars have Mississippi's most powerful first four hitters of any team in the state.
As an eighth-grader, the younger Bishop batted .527 with 40 RBIs, 14 doubles and eight triples. She also was 13-2 as a pitcher with a 1.73 ERA. Lampton drove in 47 teammates while batting .530 and also backs up Davis and Bishop on the mound. Lampton stole 23 of 24 bases.
In batting .413 as a team last year, the Cougars had 11 players bat better than .300. All return.
"It's kind of fun to have a lineup with so many good hitters," said Chaney, who teaches seventh-grade Social Studies at Newton County. "But to repeat, we will need a break here or there. There are a lot of good teams who were young like we were last year."
Newton County has an enrollment of 1,000 for grades 7-12 and 650 for grades 9-12. The Cougars do not have junior high school softball, so the seventh- and eighth-graders play with the high school team. Chaney says it does present a few problems, but he favors it.
"When I first started I didn't think I would like it. Some (seventh graders) we keep aren't as fundamental as others, but we keep our eye on them. We keep them safe," pointed out Chaney. "After a girl has gone through a high school season as a seventh-grader and returns as an eighth-grader, they've grown so much. They improve. They go through everything we go through. Some things they can't do, but they learn from it."
Chaney said they "buy into what we do earlier" and that's a big advantage. But he's quick to note that there are also huge differences between a 12-year-old seventh-grader and a 19-year-old senior.
"We have to keep them all interested and interest for a seventh-grader is very different than an interest for a senior," said Chaney, who was an assistant coach when the Cougars won three state titles.
"It's funny, I have some 19-year olds who are like mother hens because one time they were in seventh grade and remember what it was like. I get a senior to adopt a seventh-grader and show them the ropes. I had one player tell me ‘You go coach, I got the seventh-graders.' It's enjoyable to see that type of leadership. We all want to win, but seeing that side of it is truly special. There's more to this than just softball."
Chaney says the key to Newton County's success is simple.
"We just work hard. We're going to pitch and play good defense," said Chaney. "Year-round they work their backsides off for me. They realize they are reaping the benefits. It's that simple. They are still hungry for success and that helps a lot."
Chaney says they have a team motto they strive for every day: "We just say ‘Finish the day.' Whatever we do, just finish it. It carries over."
But he's quick to add that this is high school softball and the players need time to enjoy life. He says he gives them a day off to do something else, something away from softball.
"You are not going to win every game and you're going to have tough times," said Chaney. "Too many times we rank the season on on-field success only. But it's a lot about caring for one another. I tell my players every day that I care for them. I don't let them leave the field without hearing that."
It doesn't matter what their age, every player wants to hear that.