July 27, 2013 10:23:07 PM
For Will Golsan and Taylor Stafford, winning a state championship was a dream 10 years in the making.
The two became friends when they were 7-year-old baseball players. Since then, the bond has strengthened and they have played together and against one another on multiple travel teams.
But their long-range plan was to team up one day to help bring the New Hope High School baseball program back to prominence.
That dream became reality in May when New Hope defeated Pascagoula to win the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A state championship. It was New Hope's first baseball state championship since 2003.
For their contributions to the state title run, Golsan and Stafford are The Dispatch's Prep Baseball co-Players of the Year.
"It was a big achievement, certainly the biggest thing we have done playing baseball," Golsan said. "It finally sunk in a few weeks ago we finally did it. It is indescribable when you take it all in. It's a great feeling."
With Golsan and Stafford as sophomores, the 2012 Trojans lost in the North State championship round. A lot of nervous anticipation followed, since in their hearts the Trojans wanted to get back and win the trophy that eluded them a season earlier.
"We knew we had a good shot," Stafford said. "We lost some guys (from 2012), but we had some new guys step up. We really had a lot of confidence in the young guys because they know what type of program we want to have. We knew if we worked hard and had a few things fall in our way, we could get back there (to the state championship) and win it."
By no means was winning the state title easy. New Hope finished second to Oxford in Class 5A, Region 2 title and then lost three of its final four regular-season games.
"There were moments where we had some real doubt down the stretch," Stafford said. "When we played Lake Cormorant (in the first round of the playoffs), and won both of those games, it made me feel a lot better about what we could do. We played like a different team in the playoffs. We had really been struggling and more than a few of us were worried. Then things started rolling."
By not winning the region, New Hope had to win five playoff series to capture the state championship. The Trojans went 10-2 in the postseason and swept Lake Cormorant, Ridgeland, and Hernando to realize their goal. Ridgeland began the playoffs as the state's top-ranked team, while Hernando ended New Hope's season in 2012.
"We were the hardest working team in the state and we were a close-knit group," Golsan said. "Knowing each other and knowing how to pick one another up when they were down was extremely important. The team had chemistry, and that was created because a lot of us have played together for a long time. Our closeness carried us a long way, especially in the tough times."
Golsan, who has given a verbal commitment to play baseball at the University of Mississippi, hit better than .500 for the season. Batting from the lead-off spot, Golsan led the team in hits and runs. Defensively, he was exceptional at shortstop and at pitcher.
"Will was our leader in every sense of the word," said New Hope senior catcher Tee Payne, who signed to play baseball at Belhaven University. "Every time you looked up he was on base. That gives you an incredible feeling when you are getting ready to bat. You know good things are fixing to happen."
Stafford, who is considering multiple junior and senior college offers, hit third and roamed the outfield. Flirting with the .500 mark for most of the season, Stafford drove in a team-best 45 runs. On the mound, he spent a majority of the regular season as closer, but he delivered multiple quality starts in the playoffs.
"I had been a starting pitching my whole life, starting grade school," Stafford said. "When I got up to the varsity level, coach (Lee) Boyd wanted me to close. I had no problems doing that. You get a tremendous adrenaline rush when you come into the game and you know everything is on the line."
Stafford drew the start in the season-ending loss to Hernando in 2012. He was determined not to re-live that memory. Instead, Stafford threw a complete-game shutout to eliminate Hernando this season. A week later, Stafford threw another complete game in the state-clinching 3-2 victory against Pascagoula.
"Taylor is like a rock out there," said New Hope senior pitcher/third baseman Landon Boyd, who will play baseball at Northeast Mississippi Community College later this year. "If he is on the mound, you know something serious is about to happen in the game."
As with most baseball players who play the game on a high level, a strong family commitment is essential. Golsan and Stafford know a lot of people helped prepared them for their moments in May at Trustmark Park.
"We both have incredible families, and that is why we are here today," Golsan said. "Taylor and I have played together for about 10 years, so a lot has happened during that time. A lot of people have been there to push and to motivate."
Golsan said his father, Tommy, and his mother, Sondra, are major influences, as is his sister, Hayley, who Will said has been there from the "very first tournament ballgame." His 2013 season was dedicated to the memory of grandfather, Mac, who passed away last year. Girlfriend Hannah Perrigin also provided stability throughout the season.
Stafford also beams when talking about his family's involvement, which also dates to travel-ball days, alongside Golsan on the Hammers, at age 7.
"My father (Mark) played football in high school and really didn't care that much about baseball," Stafford said. "Later, he found a love for baseball. When Mom (Pam) was pregnant with me, he prayed every day for a baseball player. For the longest time, the doctors kept saying I was a girl. Then I was born and it was like his prayers were answered."
In addition to the parents, Stafford also has drawn on the love and support of sister, Marleigh, and brother, Justin.
In addition to fostering the talent, family members and coaches have instilled a work ethic in both. That mind-set is what Lee Boyd hoped to see when he took over the program four seasons ago. A former standout player with the Trojans, Boyd's job was to return the program to prominence.
"We had players who bought in," Boyd said. "If practice began at 3, the players were there ready to go at 2:45. Some coaches worry about their players being on time to make the bus. I have never had such worries. It starts with quality players like Will and Taylor, but we have others as well.
"All I can do is demand hard work. This is really the players' team. We will go as far as they carry us. When you see people like Will and Taylor step up and take ownership of the team, it is special."
In the end, everything about the Trojans this season was special.
"When you look at the outfield wall, you see signs for all of the really great teams that played out here," Stafford said. "When the season ends and you know you are going to make that wall ... it's special. It really makes you really feel proud deep down inside."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
2. Alabama men's golf surges into third COLLEGE SPORTS
3. MSU sends four more to Oregon COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Charlotte rallies past USM in ninth COLLEGE SPORTS