New Hope's future in baseball uncertain

June 14, 2009

Adam Minichino - [email protected]


The blank Web page might be an omen for the New Hope High School baseball program. 


At 3 p.m. Saturday, the page on the New Hope High sports and school booster site carried a message "Nothing to See Here Move Along." 


The absence of any information on the baseball program''s page comes after Lowndes County School District Superintendent Mike Halford recommended Friday that New Hope High baseball coach Stacy Hester not be retained after his at-will agreement ends June 30. 


The decision, which the Lowndes County School board backed with a 5-0 vote, means the future of one of the state''s most successful programs is uncertain. 


Assistant coaches Chris Ball, who is married to Hester''s daughter, Jennifer, and assistant coach Steve Younger aren''t certified as teachers and likely wouldn''t be considered for the now vacant job as the school''s baseball coach. 


Ball didn''t return a message Saturday seeking comment, while Younger declined to comment Saturday, saying he didn''t want to get involved in the issue. 


Second-year coach Billy Ray Lee said hadn''t talked to Hester and declined to comment. 


First-year assistant coach Eric Guerrero is certified as a teacher, but he said he isn''t sure if he will return next season as a coach for the baseball team. 


Guerrero said he doesn''t know if Hester''s absence will affect the tradition rich New Hope program, but he thanked Hester for giving him an opportunity to join the coaching staff. 


"I enjoyed working with coach Hester this year and I have learned a lot from his years of experience in high school baseball," Guerrero said. 


As an employee in the county school district, Guerrero declined to make any other comment. He said the hiring of the next coach would play a role in his ability and decision to remain a member of the baseball team''s coaching staff. 


New Hope won 551 games in Hester''s 18 years as coach. It won state titles in 1996, ''98, and 2003, six North Half state titles, advanced to nine Final Fours since 1995, and was nationally ranked seven times. 


In addition, the Trojans in 1996 set a national record and a state of Mississippi record for wins went they went 43-0. In 1996-97, New Hope won 51 consecutive games, including 68 straight against teams from the state of Mississippi. 


Amy Buckley, the wife of Lowndes County School District Board President Dr. Robert Buckley and whose son, Jake Smith, is a rising senior on the baseball team, said she is ready to move on and that she and her family want to put the issue behind them. 


"We just want to play baseball," Buckley said. 


Buckley said she looked into the possibility of Jake playing his senior year at Heritage Academy. She also said the family considered buying a home in Amory, but she said her son, who is 17, decided he wanted to remain at New Hope High no matter what happened to coach Hester. She said she was willing to accept his decision. 


As for the recommendation not to retain Hester, Buckley believes it won''t negatively affect the team. 


"I think this is best for New Hope baseball," Buckley said. "I think next year you''ll see a team that is ready to play the game of baseball. I am all for discipline, and strict discipline, but not for berating and belittling constantly. I think this is a special team that played together since they were 7-years old, and has won since they were 7-years old. It is a very tight-knit group. I think New Hope baseball next year will go as far if not farther than it did this year based on the players'' heart and their love of baseball."  


New Hope (25-11) lost to eventual Class 4A state champion West Lauderdale in the third game of the best-of-three North Half state title series. 


Starkville High School coach Danny Carlisle enjoyed his team''s matchups against New Hope. He said Hester always had the Trojans prepared and ready to give 100 percent. 


"Every time you faced a New Hope team with Stacy as coach you knew it was going to be a battle and a struggle to win," Carlisle said. "Stacy is a good baseball man. He''s added a lot to that program and that community. He''s been the face of New Hope baseball for 18 years. Somebody who works as hard as he does and has been National Coach of the Year and had the National Field of the Year one year, he has done a lot. 


"We all have our faults, and I''m sure a lot of people don''t like me. I don''t know the details of what went on there, but it was really unfortunate." 


Former New Hope High baseball player Chris Herring, who played for Hester in 1992 and ''93 and who has a nephew, Philip Tice, on the current New Hope High team, said all people in the New Hope community can do now is support the next coach just like they did 18 years ago when Hester took over as coach. 


He said it is disappointing that a group of people can get together and influence someone like Halford, who he said is supposed to be smarter than that, to make a decision not to retain Hester. 


"New Hope is a tight clique community, and baseball is a big part of that," Herring said. "They''re going to find a good replacement. We just have to support him and keep on winning. I am disappointed like tons of other people, but just because we have lost this one fight doesn''t mean we keep causing turmoil because all it does is drag the program down. Our elected officials spoke for us, and whether we like it or not we have to abide by it."  


Mike McReynolds, whose son, Will, was a senior on this season''s team, also declined to comment for this story. 




Commercial Dispatch assistant sports editor Danny P. Smith contributed to this report. 


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.