May 7, 2009
The New Hope High School baseball team has found new life in the postseason.
Whether it has been solid pitching, timely hitting, or sparkling defense, coach Stacy Hester''s Trojans (24-9) are playing their best baseball of the season entering game one of today''s (6 p.m.) best-of-three series against West Lauderdale for the North Half state title.
The start time for game two Friday has been moved up to 4 p.m. to help New Hope''s players have time to make it to the school''s prom.
Game three, if necessary, will be at 6 p.m. Saturday at West Lauderdale.
New Hope lost twice to its District 4 rival in the regular season, but something appears to have clicked in the postseason for the Trojans. Sweeps of Hernando, Pontotoc, and Saltillo have New Hope on a high as it looks to continue its march toward its sixth state title, and first since 2003.
Junior pitcher/outfielder Jake Smith said focus has been an integral component of New Hope''s postseason flurry.
"We all have been focused and more focused in the playoffs than in the regular season because we have pushed ourselves more to strive to get better, and I think we have," said Smith, who has anchored the team''s outfield defense.
When called on, Smith also has provided a lift on the mound. His pitching status is uncertain this series. New Hope likely will go with Dillon Hawkins today in game one. Hester said he has Blake Roberts, Smith, and Jake Upton as options for game two.
"Jake Smith does a great job in the outfield," Hester said. "He has raised his average the past few weeks and he gets on base so much."
Even though Smith has wanted to pitch more this season, he has focused on improving his skills in the outfield.
"I have come a long way," Smith said. "I was decent at the beginning of the year. Now it is natural to me. I have a better recognition of where the runners are and I am getting a better jump on the ball off the bat."
Upton, a junior catcher/pitcher, also hasn''t been surprised the Trojans have raised their level of play. He said all of the players have contributed to the six-game playoff winning streak that has the players talking a lot about "Trojan pride."
"This group of kids has been playing together since we were in Coach-Pitch," Upton said. "We knew how we could play together. We just struggled at the beginning of the year. Now we are finally becoming a tight team and we have started to play well. Everybody is picking up everybody else."
Upton said his time as catcher has helped him when he takes the mound or goes behind the plate. He said he tries to memorize the scouting report on the opposing team''s hitter before every game. He then tries to tailor his receiving game to negate the hitters'' strengths.
"Jake Upton has done a great job for us," Hester said. "He is one of the better catchers in the area. He does such a great job with the pitchers. When you have a good catcher who thinks the game, knows the game, knows how to work the pitchers, and does a great job with scouting reports it gives your team a lift."
Upton''s knuckleball also is a good weapon to being in charge. He first learned the pitch from assistant coach Steve Younger, who is the team''s pitching coach, when he was 9 years old. He perfected the motion by throwing the ball at the ground.
This season, he said that work paid off in that he feels more in control of the pitch.
"I just kept working with it and learned how to throw it," Upton said. "I never gave up on it. I have the movement down, I just had to locate it."
Upton said he doesn''t know how locate the pitch, but he feels he understands how the pitch will break and he knows where to throw the ball to receive the optimum effect.
While Upton has been solid on the mound, he has contributed most behind the plate. A broken finger kept him out for half of the season. He said he has worked hard to get back to 100 percent and to be a steady backstop to help the pitchers.
"I feel like I can do better and should do better, but I am giving it all I have got," said Upton, who started catching in eighth grade.
Upton was playing third base in junior high, but the team only had one catcher (Hawkins) and it played doubleheaders every night. Younger, who coached the team, asked the players if anyone wanted to play the position and Upton moved in.
"I love the position," Upton said. "You stay in the game every pitch and are always doing something."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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