New Hope baseball team sweeps playoff series

April 26, 2009

Adam Minichino - [email protected]


Some players would have lost focus the moment they didn''t get the job done. 


But when you have been locked in at the plate like Philip Tice has been this season, no situation is too overwhelming. 


Stuck in an 0-2 hole after missing two bunt attempts, Tice lined a two-run triple down the right-field line Friday night to lift the New Hope High School baseball team to a 7-6 victory against Pontotoc in game two of its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A second-round best-of-three playoff series at Trojan Field. 


The victory pushes New Hope (22-9) into the third round, where it will play Saltillo, which swept Neshoba Central, at a time to be determined Friday. 


"I was thinking wherever it was pitched I was going to put it," Tice said of his game-winning hit. "I had to get the job done." 


Pontotoc''s Kaleb Kennedy opened the bottom of the seventh by hitting Will McReynolds with an inside fastball. Hilton Gibson followed with a slow groundball to third baseman Jake Smithey, who fielded the ball and threw wide of first base, allowing the runners to move to second and third. 


But the home plate umpire said he had called the play dead and moved the runners back to first and second. 


New Hope protested, saying it had the right to take the result of the play. The umpires huddled and decided to move each runner up a base.  


Pontotoc then objected and the umpires met again and put the runners back to first and second. 


The rule for catcher''s obstruction, taken from the Baseball Almanac, states that "if a play follows the interference, the manager of the offense may advise the plate umpire that he elects to decline the interference penalty and accept the play." 


The rule also says "if catcher''s interference is called with a play in progress the umpire will allow the play to continue because the manager may elect to take the play." 


New Hope might have benefited from the umpires'' decision to move the runners back because Pontotoc (22-7) could have walked Tice to load the bases. 


But with runners on first and second New Hope assistant coach Chris Ball, who was acting as team spokesperson in the absence of Stacy Hester, gave Tice the sign for sacrifice. Tice fouled off his first bunt attempt and missed the second one to put himself in an 0-2 hole. 


It didn''t matter because Tice knew he was going to deliver. 


"When (coach Ball) took the bunt off and let me hit I knew I was going to come through," Tice said. 


Tice said the confidence he has in himself and the confidence his teammates have in him allowed him to produce. 


That mentality also has enabled Tice to be one of the Trojans'' most consistent hitters. He is hitting better than .400, which is one of the best averages on the team. 


"I get it in my head when I get in the box I am not going to get beat," Tice said 


Ball said he believed in Tice to get the bunt down and in No. 5 batter Davis Lee, who had a sacrifice fly, a single, and a strikeout against Kennedy, to help the team get the tying and winning runs home. 


He didn''t mind Tice took it upon himself to get the job done. 


"That is just how he has been all year," Ball said. "He has been our best player, our most clutch player. He has hit well all year. Anytime we have needed a big it he has produced." 


Tice''s three-run triple in the top of the seventh inning of game two at Hernando gave New Hope the insurance runs it needed to help it sweep the first-round series. 


Ball said Tice''s mind-set allowed him to re-focus after not getting the bunt down. The hit helped make a winner out of Jake Upton, who relieved starter Blake Roberts to begin the fifth. 


Tice said a focused week of practice and preparation helped the Trojans avoid the distractions of the week that included Hester being suspended Wednesday for three days. 


"Ever since the season started we said we were going all of the way, nothing less," Tice said. "The whole season we had something to play for, but it really didn''t kick in. This is the playoffs, and we have something to play for and we have to get our old name back and make a statement." 


Pontotoc scored three runs in the fourth to erase a 3-0 deficit. It used a Blake Littlejohn home run in the fifth to take a 4-3 lead. 


Trailing 5-4, the Warriors tied the game thanks to a fielding error, a fielder''s choice, a stolen base, and a throwing error. 


Kyle Russell''s home run, in the top of the seventh, the team''s 45th of the season and its second of the night against Upton, gave Pontotoc hope it could send the game back home Saturday for a winner-take-all game three, but it wasn''t to be. 


"New Hope is a good team. We were good tonight, but they were just a little better," Pontotoc coach Phil Webb said. "You have to be good and lucky. Tonight we were good but we weren''t lucky." 


Webb said the "slugfest" could have gone either way. He said Kennedy gave the Warriors a chance to win after allowing three runs on three hits in the first. He said Kennedy (8-1) settled in and regained control of his curveball to keep the Trojans off balance.  


New Hope had eight hits against Kennedy but capitalized on six errors, including the catcher''s obstruction. 


The victory didn''t have as many offensive fireworks as the Trojans'' 15-5 victory in five innings Thursday in which the Warriors hit four home runs, but it had even more drama. 


Ball, Hester''s son-in-law, said it wasn''t difficult for the players to put the off-the-field issues out of their minds and take care of business. 


"They just wanted to show everybody all they want to do is play baseball," Ball said. "Coach Hester will be down in the third-base coaching box next week and nothing is going to change. We haven''t skipped a beat."  


New Hope showed it plans to stick around a while longer as it closed the evening with a cheer, "Trojan pride, round three (of the state playoffs)." 


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.