May 27, 2013 11:06:39 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
New Hope High School junior Taylor Stafford wants the ball in clutch situations.
Stafford spent the majority of the regular season starting in center field and closing games on the mound when the situation arose.
In the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs, Stafford had to answer both the closer's bell and the starter's bell. Those duties were in addition to roaming the outfield and being a major contributor at the plate.
With all of that multi-tasking, no challenge proved too tall.
For his complete-game pitching performance in the series clincher and his solid play throughout the postseason, Stafford is the final Dispatch Prep Player of the Week for the 2012-13 school year.
"There is nothing like being on the mound at the end of the game when you know you are pitching your team into the next round," Stafford said. "Coach (Lee Boyd) asked me to start closing in ninth grade. It is something I am comfortable with. The nerves go away and the adrenaline takes over. It is great being on the mound when your team needs it the most."
In the state title series, New Hope won 11-9 over Pascagoula in game one. Stafford had a big hit in the sixth inning as the Trojans broke a 9-9 tie.
In the second contest, Pascagoula evened the series with a 3-2 win. In this contest, Stafford entered a bases-loaded jam with one out and his team trailing 3-2. Two key outs were garnered allowing his team a chance to rally.
Less than 24 hours later, Stafford returned to the hill and pitched a complete game as the Trojans won 3-2, securing their first state championship since 2003.
"Taylor is a competitor," Boyd said. "This is his No. 1 attribute. It's all about stuff and ability, as well. But it starts with 'want to.' He is absolutely full of that. It rubs off on his teammates. He is the type of player that you know others want to be around. He can lead you anywhere."
Last season, New Hope lost in the North State championship game. The sting of that disappointment provided the backdrop for this season's run.
"Anytime, anybody had doubts, we thought back to last year," Stafford said. "We didn't want to feel that pain again. Since the last out of last season, we have worked extremely hard to get back to this point."
While teammate Will Golsan has hit north of .500 throughout th 2013 season, Stafford has kept him close company. This duo, along with senior Landon Boyd gave the Trojans a formidable 1-2-3 punch at the top of the order and helped set the table for a 10-2 run in the playoffs.
"Will really helped make us go," Boyd said. "You always looked up and he was on base. Once, we got into the playoffs, the bottom part of the lineup really picked up the slack as well. We thought going into the season we would be able to swing the bats well. It really came together at the right time for us."
Boyd and junior J.C. Redden were the regular starters for New Hope. That duo gave the ball on many nights to either Golsan or Stafford in relief. In the postseason, games became more compressed and more innings were logged. Regardless of the rotation, Boyd knew No. 17 was the one he wanted on the mound when the last out was recorded.
"For three years, he has been our closer," Boyd said. "You don't know the relief you have as a coach when you know you can go out there and give the ball to somebody who is going to shut it down."
Stafford did just that throughout the postseason. His first statement win came in a complete game shutout of Hernando to win this season's North State championship. The victory was especially sweet since Hernando had knocked New Hope out of the playoffs a season earlier.
"It has all been about the rings," Stafford said. "That is why we have played this season. All of our wildest dreams became reality."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter