FLOWOOD – Things got a little scary for Neshoba Central in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Down two runs and trying to force a late-game rally, Northwest Rankin’s Abbey Steed doubled to center field to send Olivia Dick home from second base and cut the Rockets’ lead to one.
“Yeah, I was getting a little nervous there,” Rockets senior shortstop Hailey Lunderman said.
Lunderman’s nerves went away when Shelby Walter flew out to center field three batters later to end the game, allowing the Lady Rockets to escape Northwest Rankin (7-9) with a 6-5 victory on Tuesday.
Neshoba Central (13-1) hasn’t experienced many close games, having piled on a 17-4 win over Petal and a 12-0 shutout on top of an 18-4 win in a doubleheader against Ridgeland in the last two weeks.
But the Lady Rockets are the No. 1 team in the state. Facing their opponents’ best is what they’re used to.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot and you’ve got to step up and play at those times,” Lady Rockets coach Trae Embry said. “(Northwest Rankin) is really scrappy and put together some hits tonight, and that’s one thing I don’t think we did really well.”
Neshoba Central is young — its ace, Aspen Winter (5-1), is an eighth-grader. Besides Lunderman and left fielder Kaila Willis, all of Embry’s position players are underclassmen.
Which is why having his star shortstop come up big in crucial moments is a necessity for a program looking to capture its third straight fast-pitch title this season.
In the fifth and seventh innings in the same no-out situation and with a runner on first, Lunderman hit a shallow bunt and beat out the throw to put herself on at first base and advance a runner to second. Tied 3-3 in the top of the fifth, Lunderman then scored the go-ahead run for the Rockets and again crossed the plate in the seventh to put Neshoba Central up 6-4.
“Hailey’s a gamer,” Embry said. “She’s got really good instincts. She’s who you want to be at the plate in those situations.”
Lunderman, an Ole Miss signee, has a team-high .667 batting average and .707 on-base percentage. The speed that allowed her to reach base twice on Tuesday is something she can’t attribute to softball alone.
The senior was the third leading scorer for Neshoba Central’s girls basketball team with 9.9 points per game, helping the Lady Rockets reach the Class 5A quarterfinals.
“She came out this year, because they played longer, in a lot better shape that she did even last year,” Embry said.
Lunderman, 2013’s Miss Softball, is just as effective as a defender, with a near-perfect fielding percentage — a concept that she and her teammates take seriously when close game situations present themselves.
“We bring it from practice to the game,” she said. “We play defense really well, and we’ll do anything to keep the ball in front of us — land on our butts, knock it down, anything.”
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.