September 10, 2013 10:03:06 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
Taylor Stafford's dream came true this weekend.
The New Hope High School outfielder finally received a scholarship offer from the school he grew up always wanting to play for when Mississippi State University pitching coach Butch Thompson called Saturday night and offered him a chance to play at the school his family has been season ticket holders practically all of his life.
By Monday evening, Stafford was set to play college baseball and ready to be a key contributor for MSU as one of the state of Mississippi's top prospects in the 2014 recruiting class.
"I can't promise much about what kind of player I'll be at the next level, but I can promise this: I'll be one of those players that from day one will understand and appreciate what it means to put on that Mississippi State jersey and the privilege of playing at Dudy Noble Field," Stafford said.
Stafford, a 5-foot-9 outfielder showed MSU coaches he could handle Southeastern Conference pitching at the school's Labor Day camp. His performance ensured The Dispatch's 2013 All-Area Baseball co-Player of the Year a scholarship offer.
"I would've waited the whole year to see what Mississippi State was going to do from the moment they called me first about a month ago," Stafford said. "This is the school I always wanted to play for, and there wasn't a decision to be made for me. The choice was all theirs."
Stafford, who remembered being on Dudy Noble Field as early as a 5 years old, said he told the coaches he'd accept a scholarship offer the minute Thompson made it. The MSU coaching staff told him it was their policy to have him sleep on the decision, so Stafford called them back Monday night to tell them he accepted.
"I have Taylor in class first thing in the morning and he told me that's what he was going to do when I saw him at school Monday morning," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "He was always going to say yes to Mississippi State. That kid and their family couldn't be more supportive of the MSU program."
Stafford's mother, Pam, works as a business manager in MSU's research and curriculum unit. Before that, she worked in the school's enrollment office. The Staffords lived in Starkville before they moved closer to Columbus prior to Taylor's seventh-grade year.
NCAA rules prohibit MSU coaches from commenting about Stafford until he signs a National Letter of Intent in the early period, which begins Nov. 13.
"Mississippi State is getting one of the best players in the state, and one of the most humble kids I've ever had the pleasure of coaching," Boyd said. "Taylor is a kid that was born to play baseball for that school, and I'm so happy he's getting that opportunity."
Stafford is the 11th commitment in the Bulldogs' 2014 recruiting class, and the second SEC player to emerge from New Hope's Class 5A state championship team. Shortstop Will Golsan will play for the University of Mississippi. After making it to the College World Series national championship series last season, MSU has received commitments from five players the Perfect Game national scouting service ranks in the top 500 in the country.
Stafford won game three of the 5A championship series against Pascagoula to help New Hope win its first state title since 2003. The left-hander has all the characteristics and body type of a classic recruit for MSU coach John Cohen. He hit .476 with one home run and 38 RBIs and was 8-0 with a 2.10 ERA.
"We run our baseball program like a business at New Hope, and, quite frankly, under coach Boyd it's the most consistent and best program in the state of Mississippi," Stafford said. "I know the conditioning, weight training and practices will be hard, but it's not like I'm coming from a program that isn't used to working their players hard at this level. I'll adapt because I want to learn and I want to get better as a player."
Stafford earned first-team All-State honors in Class 5A as a utility player.
"Taylor will continue to be in the same role he was for us last year as a middle-of-the-order hitter, center fielder, and a guy I can count on in tough spots on the mound," Boyd said. "He is such a laid-back and humble kid that I have no doubt he'll be fine with every other program knowing he's a SEC recruit during his senior season."
MSU is recruiting Stafford for his hitting ability and his ability to cover the large outfield at Dudy Noble Field. Since he took the job at his alma mater, Cohen has valued what he calls "the special athlete" in his recruits and looks for outfielders who can use their athleticism to make the big dimensions of their home field look small.
"I think a lot of people look at my offensive numbers and think MSU is recruiting the bat but yeah, I think one of my best attributes on the baseball field is my defense and, specifically, my ability to get great jumps on a ball coming off the bat in the outfield," Stafford said. "I know Dudy Noble Field is a big ballpark,but a lot of what makes it easier for outfielders naturally is to know where the ball will be before it ever gets at its highest part in the air. I can do that."
Stafford also held offers from Southeastern Louisiana University, Nicholls State University, Delta State University, and the University of West Alabama. He also received early interest from the University of Alabama.
"Nothing against all the schools that recruited me and wanted me real bad because they were quality universities with first-class people, but they all knew I wanted to be at one place to play college baseball," Stafford said. "They knew I would say yes to Mississippi State the second they offered, and I am proud to say I was honest with all of them."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.