This season marked yet another strong campaign complete with a deep playoff run for coach Kyle Long and his East Central Lady Hornets. Picayune, however, had their best season in a while, making it all the way to the Class 5A championship series. The catalyst for the Lady Maroon Tide’s breakthrough performance was senior Megan Dudenhefer, who ranked among the state’s most dominant pitchers in 2017.
For their outstanding efforts, Dudenhefer was named the Sun Herald’s Softball Player of the Year, while Long is the Sun Herald’s Softball Coach of the Year.
Dudenhefer started to established herself as one of the state’s premier two-way softball players last year. As a junior, she hit .352 with 21 extra-base hits while going 9-6 with a 1.19 ERA and 107 strikeouts (her second of three consecutive years to eclipse 100 strikeouts).
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This year, Dudenhefer — who was a member of last year’s Sun Herald All-South Mississippi Softball Team — took her game to another level. The LSU-Eunice signee not only hit .396 with 16 extra-base hits and a .909 OPS, but her pitching numbers jumped off the page. In 181 1/3 innings, Dudenhefer recorded 306 strikeouts against just 29 walks while boasting a 21-6 record with a 0.69 ERA. She also collected 23 complete games with seven shutouts and one perfect game.
According to MaxPreps.com, Dudenhefer ranked second in Mississippi in ERA, third in strikeouts and fifth in wins.
“I think last year she found her place, her niche in the circle. At the end of the year last year she really started progressing,” Picayune coach Kristi Mitchell said. “She just kind of took command this year and her confidence soared.
“I’m proud of her. I’ve watched her grow with the mental game and the physical game. It’s been a good coaching experience for me, too.”
Mitchell saw Dudenhefer’s pitching improve all around, from her velocity and command to knowledge of situations. Dudenhefer’s heart also made a big difference, Mitchell said, as Picayune had to eliminate West Harrison, Wayne County and Long Beach before running up against juggernaut Neshoba Central in the 5A title series.
“I think it was her combination of speed and movement that made her so dominant. She throws a really good two-seam fastball that breaks. I think that was her dominant pitch. And then she had a few others she was able to mix in and keep people off balance,” Mitchell said. “She told me at the end of the season, ‘I just want to tell you I gave every pitch everything I could.’”
The Lady Hornets have been one of the Coast’s most consistent programs. East Central has eclipsed 18 wins in each of the last six seasons with Long’s guidance. This year, ECHS (26-8) made it to the Class 4A South State series before falling to eventual state champion North Pike.
“At East Central the expectations are always high,” Long said. “I didn’t know what to expect with our younger kids. I knew they were talented and we really meshed well. I was really proud of them.”
The Lady Hornets were a senior-heavy squad a year ago but were eliminated prematurely in the second round of the playoffs. Long believes this year’s team bonded early — like, before they ever stepped foot on a high school softball diamond. That camaraderie paved the way for prolonged success in 2017 despite relying on several underclassmen.
“They were close. They’re a close group,” he said. “The ninth graders and some of the 10th graders won the world series when they were 8 or 9 and so they have always played together.
“In high school sports that’s such a big deal.”
East Central proved to be a well-rounded team, hitting .356 as a team with 11 home runs and 43 stolen bases while also combining for a 1.50 team ERA.
With the bulk of his roster returning for 2018, could the Lady Hornets make another run at a state championship?
“We have most everyone returning so we should have a shot to be good,” Long said. “You never know how the breaks are going to go, but I feel like we have a chance to be really good.”