May 23, 2013 3:12:05 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Like many coaches, Lee Boyd had a plan.
In putting that plan into action, the New Hope High School baseball coach faced the usual decisions about playing upperclassmen and underclassmen, who would start at what position, and how he would manage his pitching staff.
But an assortment of injuries, illnesses, and ups and downs this season has forced Boyd to re-assess and to reconfigure that puzzle.
Fortunately, players have been willing to accept new or different roles, while others have emerged after not being a part of the initial plan to push New Hope within reach of a state crown.
New Hope (25-8) will go for its first state championship since 2003 at 4:30 p.m. today when it takes on Pascagoula at 4:30 p.m. in game one of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A State title series at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Game two of the best-of-three series will be at 1:30 p.m. Friday. If needed, game three will be Saturday at a time to be determined.
While seniors Landon Boyd and Tee Payne and juniors Taylor Stafford and Will Golsan have been the most experienced mainstays, nearly every other part of the Trojans' attack has been tinkered with or changed to fit the circumstances. To its credit, New Hope has recovered from a lull at the end of the regular season to beat Lake Cormorant, Yazoo City, Ridgeland, and Hernando to get back to the state's biggest stage.
"One through nine we know it has been different guys every time who have kind of carried our team," Boyd said. "To get to this point, you have to have a little luck, a little skill, and we have seemed to find it this year at the right time.
"I think some of those bad things have helped us throughout the season and we have learned from them and we have put it together at the right time."
Seniors Trae Collins (center field) and Austin Oswalt (right field) have battled injuries and illness to play key roles, while juniors Rooke Coleman (left field), Parker Earhart (second base), J.C. Redden (pitcher/third base), and Jake Hollis (catcher) have accepted new roles or emerged in their first significant action with the varsity team.
The contributions don't end there.
Sophomores Wells Davis (first base), Josh Stillman (shortstop), and Payton Lane (designated hitter) also have shown an ability to be ready at a moment's notice in case of defensive replacement or, in Lane's case, to provide a timely hit in the middle of the order.
Coleman played catcher for the first part of the 2012 season before being asked to change positions. Boyd admits Coleman would prefer to play catcher but has accepted his role as a left fielder to help make the team better. Davis has stepped in at first base with Payne's move back to catcher for Hollis, who suffered an injured thumb. Redden worked hard in the offseason to take the step from a junior varsity team member to a durable pitcher who is among the staff's leader in innings.
When Golsan, the starting shortstop, pitches, Stillman, the cousin of former New Hope player Seth Stillman, takes over at shortstop and has provided timely defensive plays, while Lane has emerged as a RBI machine in the No. 6 spot.
When you put it all together, the efforts of so many players have allowed New Hope to battle back from a season filled with early deficits. Of late, the Trojans' offense has been clicking from top to bottom, while the defense and pitching have been stellar when needed.
Oswalt, who also played on the school's football and boys soccer teams, has had the most to overcome. The right fielder lost nearly 30 pounds in March after suffering colitis, an from inflammation of the colon. Oswalt said doctors never determined how it happened, but they believe it could have stemmed from salmonella, which is a disease caused by raw or undercooked food.
Prior to the illness, Oswalt, who coach Boyd admits wasn't in his initial plans at the start of the season, had worked his way into the lineup and was hitting No. 9. The illness took him out of the lineup for about three weeks until he returned and went 2-for-3 in a district game against West Point. From there, Oswalt has been a fixture in the No. 9 hole, keeping rallies going and getting on base for Golsan, the team's lead-off hitter and player with the best batting average.
"Before I got the illness I was really motivated because I didn't start as a junior," Oswalt said. "Once I got the illness I thought it was over. From there, the doctors said it could be a lifetime thing, but it just ended up being a small case of it. They said it could have turned it Crohn's disease (a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract). But I hit the weight room pretty hard and the batting cages pretty hard that week trying to get back."
Oswalt said the colitis was painful and caused him to throw up repeatedly. He said he couldn't hold any food down and, while with the team on its spring break trip to Orlando, Fla., had to be taken to the hospital for an IV. He also had to have two more IVs when he returned to Columbus.
But Boyd didn't give up on Oswalt and slowly worked him back into the mix. Meanwhile, Oswalt said he did everything the doctors told him to do, even if he might have worked a little too hard in an effort to get back as close to 100 percent as he could.
"He has been one of the biggest surprises we have had," Boyd said. "He is not your normal No. 9 hole guy. We kind of got him there to get some guys on base for Will. Austin is hitting .370ish. ... He was hitting .450 after the Northridge (Ala.) game or so and then got sick and lost about 125 pounds. You could tell he was not there, so we sat him out for three weeks and started to get him some at-bats late in the year to try to work him back in, and he hit even when he was scrawny."
With game one in the state title series set for today, Oswalt is ecstatic he is back and is one piece of a puzzle that has clicked for the Trojans.
"This is my first time going to state since I have been here," Oswalt said. "I am pretty thankful that the season lasted this long so I was able to play through all of the playoffs. I just love to play in the playoffs and in the atmosphere at Trojan Field. I am pumped I came back healthy enough for the playoffs and for districts."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.