December 26, 2013 10:13:14 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
Taylor Stafford felt the emptiness.
New Hope High School lost its hopes for a state championship in the Mississippi High School Activities Association's North State championship series in 2012. For Stafford, the pain was double because he was the losing pitcher in his team's final game of the season.
It took a while, but eventually the emptiness went away. Stafford and the Trojans then turned that emptiness into a resolve that helped them erase that disappointment.
Roughly 12 months later, the emptiness became euphoria as New Hope reclaimed its spot as a baseball state champion for the first time in 10 seasons.
New Hope's dominating run to the Class 5A state championship is The Dispatch's top high school sports story for 2013.
"We didn't want to go through the heartache and pain again," Stafford said. "We thought we had the best team in 2012, but it did not work out, so this season, we decided to make sure we worked as hard as we could to get back to the same spot and this time get it done."
While New Hope had its sights set on a state championship, the run still came as a surprise to some. The Trojans were ranked throughout the season but mostly in the bottom half of the state's top 15.
The Trojans didn't win the Class 5A, Region 2 championship. That distinction went to Oxford after an 8-1 victory against New Hope in Lowndes County. Oxford won two of three from New Hope during the regular season.
"That game may have been a little of a wakeup call," New Hope shortstop Will Golsan said. "I think everybody on the team knew they had a little more they could give."
When Lee Boyd took the head coaching position at his alma mater prior to the 2010 season, he knew the expectation was to make the Trojans a state championship winner again. Boyd liked the makeup of his squad, but he was concerned about a late-season slide that saw the team lose three of its final four and four of its final seven in the regular season.
"You know you have the pieces, but, at the same time, you really aren't playing well," Boyd said. "It was surprising we pulled things together and had this type of run."
In the postseason, current Northeast Mississippi Community College player Landon Boyd -- Lee's Boyd younger brother -- provided steady leadership on the mound. Golsan continued to bat first and play arguably the best defense in the state. Stafford had the team's biggest bat during the playoff run and excelled as a starter and closer on the mound.
New Hope also received lifts from different people at different times. Payton Lane and Parker Earhart won different postseason games at the plate. JC Redden, Tee Payne, Rooke Coleman, and Austin Oswalt also continued their stellar play.
"We had balance," Boyd said. "I think top to bottom we had the best balance in Class 5A. We had some star players, but we also had role players. On any night, we had different ways to beat you."
New Hope started winning again when it mattered most.
In the opening round, New Hope beat Lake Cormorant in two games. The second round began with a one-run loss to Yazoo City. The Trojans scored 21 runs in the next two games and moved on with relative ease.
In the third round, New Hope tamed Ridgeland -- one of Class 5A's preseason favorites -- in two games. The form held true in the North State finals, where New Hope eliminated Hernando in two games.
That series sweep was sweet because Hernando ended New Hope's season in 2012.
"We put a lot of emotion into the Hernando series because of what had happened the year before," Stafford said. "When we won the first game up there, we knew we could win the championship."
The state championship series provided a classic with Pascagoula. The Trojans won 11-9 but then lost 3-2 to set up a rubber match at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Stafford pitched a complete game in a 3-2 victory that helped the Trojans finish 27-9.
"Even months later, it still hasn't sunk in," Golsan said in July. "You dream about playing on a state championship team. When you do it, it is even better than you imagined."
This season, the Trojans will shift into the favorite's role. Six position starters return, as does a majority of the pitching staff. Stafford, a Mississippi State commitment, and Golsan, an Ole Miss commitment, are back.
Some re-tooling will take place in the outfield. The pitching staff will have to replace Boyd, but multiple young arms from last season return. A chance to hang another state championship banner on the outfield wall is enough motivation to keep New Hope in the cages and weight room through the holidays.
"How nice would be back-to-back championships be?" Golsan asked. "That would be one way to leave a legacy."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter