May 5, 2009
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
SALTILLO -- The New Hope High School baseball team''s magical playoff run added enough highlights Monday night to fill an installment of SportsCenter.
Brent Younger and Phillip Tice played the roles of defensive stalwarts, diving to make run-saving plays.
Blake Roberts continued to battle back from soreness in his right arm to give the Trojans five-plus innings on the mound.
Tice and Will McReynolds sparked on offense that capitalized on mistakes and made plenty of noise when it needed to.
New Hope put it all together for a 16-7 victory against Saltillo in game two of the Mississippi High School Activities Association best-of-three Class 4A third-round playoff series at Jim Scott Field.
New Hope will advance to face District 4 rival West Lauderdale, which beat Itawamba 2-0 on Monday to sweep its third-round series. Game one of that series will be Thursday, with game two at New Hope on Friday.
The victory was a team effort in every sense of the word, as nearly every player who saw action contributed to help the Trojans (24-9) sweep their third playoff series in a row.
"This team is clicking on all cylinders," New Hope coach Stacy Hester said.
That might be an understatement.
Tice and McReynolds each had four hits. Tice, a sophomore second baseman, had two-run hits in each of his first three at-bats. He nearly had four in a row, but the right fielder couldn''t cleanly field his single in the fifth inning.
"He knows he is going to get the job done," McReynolds said. "Confidence is half the battle. If you know you''re going to do it, chances are you are going to do it."
Tice capped his evening with an intentional walk in the sixth.
"I feel relaxed," Tice said. "I didn''t play my best Friday night (when he went 1-for-4, two RBIs). Tonight, I was striving to do better. I wanted to show I could do better than Friday."
First baseman Hilton Gibson (double, RBI) even got into the act. The senior might not be one of the team''s fastest runners, but he showed in the third that he might be one of its smartest.
After McReynolds scored easily on a single by Tice, Hester waved Gibson around to try to score. The right fielder''s throw beat Gibson in plenty of time, but Gibson hurdled catcher Jake Littlejohn''s left glove hand that had the ball in it and came down on the plate to give the Trojans a 10-5 lead.
New Hope''s defense did more than its share.
Younger charged in to field a groundball by Littlejohn and Gibson scooped it out of the dirt to end the second.
In the fourth, Younger charged in and barehanded a slow roller and threw just in time to first base to record the out.
On the next play, Younger dove to his left to snare a line drive for the second out. He recorded another assist on Colby Adams'' groundball to end the inning.
"I just ran and dove for it and caught it," Younger said. "As soon as he hit it I read it and dove for it."
In the fifth, Tice showed he could flash some leather as he dove to right and caught a line drive that appeared destined for center field. He got to his feet and tossed the ball to Younger for an inning ending double play.
"That second baseman and shortstop, you''re not going to see plays like that in high school very often," Saltillo coach Johnny Bolen said.
Left fielder Josh Ferguson and center fielder Jake Smith added fine running catches in the sixth to help erase the memory of the fact the Trojans committed three errors.
"We''re finally putting it all together," Younger said. "We''re playing for something more now. We really want to win state, so it is giving us that much more motivation."
Bolen made the unusual move after the game of coming over to talk with the Trojans. He congratulated them on their effort and wished them well in the run to win a state title.
"I just told them I they play like that they''re going to be in Jackson," Bolen said. "The two games we played them that is the best ballclub we have played all year. They hit the ball and play defense like that they have a shot."
Bolen admitted he didn''t think New Hope would hit the ball as well as he did in part because pitching has been a "bright spot" that has "carried" the team this season.
He said New Hope capitalized on mistakes in game one and hit the ball well Monday night.
Trailing 4-0, Saltillo (16-15) answered with three runs in the bottom of the first. A line drive out by Jake Logan to Gibson prevented the Tigers from tying the game.
Facing an 8-3 deficit in the second, Saltillo answered with three runs, thanks to home runs by Adams and Hunter Hill, who snuck his in down the 300-foot right-field line.
Roberts, who allowed nine hits and seven runs in 5 1/3 innings, settled down in the third and fourth with the support of his defense.
Tice''s play in the fifth was huge because the Tigers had the bases loaded with one out.
McReynolds, who plays right field and catcher, said at the end of the regular season that New Hope had the talent to win a state title and that he was going to do everything he could to motivate his teammates to play with Trojan pride.
It appears his comment has stirred something in the Trojans.
"This game we played should be an average game," McReynolds said. "We''re so much better than how we played tonight. We have the best talent, and it is showing up now because we have Trojan pride.
"From the beginning of the season, coach has always told us that defense is going to be one of our strong points. Diving catches should be an everyday thing for us, but our sticks really stepped it up."
Hester, who called Tice "Mr. Clutch" at the plate, credited Tice and Younger for making sparkling plays.
"Our defense played as good as they have played," Hester said. "The shortstop made some great plays, and the play the second baseman made was outstanding. We knew coming into the season we had a good defense. We just hadn''t put it together. We made some mistakes, just like our hitting."
Younger said the Trojans know they can play like that every game. Now it is a matter of beating West Lauderdale and its deep pitching staff.
The Trojans won''t be intimidated.
"I knew we were going to make it this far," McReynolds said. "At the beginning of the season we had Trojan pride. Coach Hester told us that, and he was right. Now we have Trojan pride and we''re playing for the name that is on our jerseys. Everybody is doing their job, and everybody is stepping up."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.