Hilltoppers face defending champs in first trip to finals

By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal

Keith Jernigan will make his annual trip to the girls fastpitch softball state championships today, but his viewing plans have changed.
Instead of sitting in the stands, Houston’s coach will watch the games from the dugout and the third base coaching box.
“This is my first time to have a team in the finals,” said Jernigan, who is in his ninth season coaching at his alma mater. “I’ve tried to go down there every year and learn while I was there.
“I told the girls that after nine years of work, this is the big paycheck. It’s overwhelming and exciting.”
Jernigan’s Lady Hilltoppers play defending champion Newton County today and Saturday in the MHSAA Class 4A best-of-three state championship series at Ridgeland’s Freedom Ridge Park.
This weekend’s series will be the final games for Houston senior left-handed pitcher Haley Gravat. A four-year starter, she has compiled a 31-2 record and recorded 169 strikeouts this season.
“She has natural, God-given ability,” Jernigan said. “Our defense plays comfortable behind her, because they know she’s going to control the ball.”
Gravat, who throws in the mid 50s, excels at reading batters, the coach noted.
“She picks up on each batter throughout the game,” he said.
Houston’s won 32 games this season and lost just two. One of those losses came last week in the North half series against Pontotoc.
“I wondered how we’d respond,” Jernigan said of his team’s Game 2 loss. “These girls believe they can win every time they step on the field.”
Gravat is the lone senior in the starting lineup, one that features three juniors, three sophomore, a freshman and an eighth grader – right fielder Madeline Burdine, who contributed some crucial base hits in the postseason.
The leadoff batter is Chelsea Gates, a switch hitter, who leads the team with a .387 average and 10 triples.
“It’s been a team thing; we’ve moved a lot of people around and they’ve adjusted,” Jernigan said. “Even the players not starting have accepted their role. It’s been a key to our winning.”
Newton County is led by reigning Gatorade Player of the Year Emily Davis who is 15-1 on the mound and hitting .490.
gene.phelps@journalinc.com