April 30, 2009
Philip Tice doesn''t hesitate when asked what qualities make a clutch hitter.
"Confidence," Tice said.
In his first year as a varsity starter, Tice is showing confidence beyond his years.
As a result, the New Hope High School baseball team is still alive when many people thought its season would have ended two weeks ago.
Instead, New Hope will play host to Saltillo at 6 p.m. Friday in game one of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A third-round best-of-three series.
The winner of this series will advance to face the winner of the West Lauderdale-Itawamba AHS for the North Half state title.
The Trojans can thank Tice for playing an integral role in extending their season.
The second baseman had a two-run double in the bottom of the seventh inning Friday night to beat Pontotoc 7-6 to advance to face Saltillo in the third round.
In the previous series against Hernando, Tice had a three-run double that gave New Hope the insurance runs it needed in game two to sweep that series.
In both series, Tice said he has had an attitude that he isn''t going to be beaten when he steps into the batter''s box. It''s an attitude that has gained strength with each clutch hit.
"I am not sure where it comes from, but I think the whole team has confidence," Tice said. "It is just really now starting to show. It is like a chain reaction. When one person does good you want to get out there and do the same thing."
Tice played on the junior varsity team last season. He said he has gone through a big change in his approach at the plate and has weathered the highs and lows to be the Trojans'' top hitter.
Among regulars, Tice leads the team with a .480 batting average. He also leads the team with 49 hits and is second to Hilton Gibson (58, 32) in total bases with 56 and in RBIs with 31.
More importantly, Tice is hitting .500 with runners in scoring position. Thirty of his hits have come with runners in scoring position.
"Philip has been our most consistent hitter," New Hope coach Stacy Hester said. "He has a great summer and I was looking forward to him having a great year."
Unfortunately, Hester said Tice didn''t seem to hit his stride in practice at the plate before the season started.
That changed when the season began.
"From day one he has gotten big hit after big hit," Hester said. "Every category we have with the exception of home runs he is at the top or right there at it."
Senior third baseman T.J. Upton also is doing his part to help push New Hope''s season closer to a chance to play for another state title.
Upton might not be having the season he imagined. He is hitting .230 with two home runs and 16 RBIs. Still, he has anchored third base for the Trojans and is one of nine seniors on the team who have provided valuable leadership.
"It has been tough as far as my numbers, but my numbers don''t mean anything as far as wins and losses," Upton said. "The regular season doesn''t matter anymore. It is just who produces now."
New Hope (22-9) is living up to those words. The Trojans, the No. 3 seed out of Class 4A-District 4, have swept Hernando and Pontotoc.
Upton and Tice said the Trojans'' attitude has carried them through a postseason that has included a suspension of head coach Stacy Hester. Hester didn''t coach in the Pontotoc series and is expected back to coach against Saltillo.
"It is just having that experience and focus and the ability to leave everything else behind and get the big hits and to make the plays," Upton said. "I think we have done that fairly well in the regular season. We were lacking it in the regular season, but I think the experience of all of that has made it a lot easier to come through in the clutch and to stay focused no matter what happens in the game."
Hester said Upton is playing with a renewed sense of purpose. He said Upton has played a solid third base and has put the regular season behind him.
"He has had some great plays at third," Hester said. "He will be the first one to tell you he hasn''t played third as good as he wants, but he is sometimes too hard on himself. I have told him you have to get over a mistake. Although I get on you or someone else gets on you or you hang your head or show emotion, you can''t do that. I think he really has learned a lot lately."
Tice said focus has helped him in tight sports. He isn''t sure he can call himself a clutch hitter. He said he would like to deliver in more timely situations and he will keep trying his best to become a better hitter.
His example is just another one of many that shows how the Trojans have used the lessons of an up-and-down regular season to their benefit in the postseason.
"We tried to learn from our mistakes in the regular season and tried to fix it in practice and play hard in the playoffs," Tice said. "I think everybody has done their job.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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