April 30, 2014 11:18:45 PM
Josh Stillman was eager to see what role he could play as a junior with the New Hope High School baseball team.
Through 27 games, Stillman has proven quite capable of being a consistent contributor at the plate and on the mound for the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A defending state champion.
Later this year, Stillman will get another chance to prove himself.
This time it will be on an even bigger stage. In January, Stillman attended an Under Armour Baseball Factory National Tryout and Premium Video program in Jackson and was selected to be a part of the Under Armour Southwest Regional Championships that will run from July 29-Aug. 4 in Southern California. The showcase tournament will feature some of the nation's top players.
"I am going to let them see what a country boy from Mississippi can do," Stillman said with a smile. "I think it will be good to play with some of the best guys in the nation. Going all of the way to California will be a lot of exposure. There will be a lot o college coaches there and even though I may not go play out West -- it is a long way -- but just to have your name across the nation and letting coaches see you will be a good experience."
New Hope High baseball coach Lee Boyd recommended Stillman for the tryout. At the event, tryout organizers made tapes of the players to evaluate them. After pitching and playing well, Stillman said it took a couple of days after the event to get a phone call informing him he had been selected to participate in the regional tournament.
"They had professional scouts there and guys who have played professionally," Stillman said. "The best thing about it was you an unbiased evaluation on what kind of player you are. It was neat to go and do that to see where I stand compared to the rest of the highschool students around the nation.
"I thought I did well. I thought it was one of my best days as far as pitching in front of coaches. I was pretty on."
Boyd said he recommended several players and believed attending the tryout would be a good chance to increase his exposure and an opportunity to get selected to the team.
"Josh is a good player. He has improved drastically," Boyd said. "We thought he was going to be a good player for us this year, and he has been."
Boyd said Stillman started to swing the bat well at the end of last season when the team was in the stretch run of its march to the Class 5A state title. With the graduation of pitcher/infielder Landon Boyd, who went on to play at Northeast Mississippi Community College, coach Boyd felt Stillman could play a bigger role, especially as a member of the pitching rotation. Stillman has rewarded Boyd's confidence by joining seniors J.C. Redden and Taylor Stafford as the team's primary starting pitchers.
New Hope (24-3) will count on those three players at 6 tonight when it begins defense of its state championship against Center Hill in Game 1 of their best-of-three Class 5A North State playoff series. Game 2 will be at 6 p.m. Friday. The if-needed game will be at 4 p.m. Saturday in Columbus.
For Stillman, the playoffs is another chance to show he can perform at a high level. In the regular season, Stillman, a right-hander, was 6-0 with a 1.39 ERA in eight games. In 35 1/3 innings, he allowed 24 hits and nine walks. He struck out 47 and had two complete games. He also is hitting .293 with 22 hits (tied for fifth on the team), 21 RBIs (tied for third), and two doubles.
Boyd recalls being impressed with Stillman after watching him pitch in the Golden Triangle World Series. He said Stillman worked hard last year and this year and has developed into a solid pitcher. He also is versatile enough he can play in the outfield and at third base.
Boyd said the chance to play on the Under Armour team in the tournament in California will give Stillman a chance to gauge his talents against players from across the country. Before that, though, Boyd hopes Stillman can continue to deliver for the Trojans. New Hope practiced Friday after beating West Lauderdale 4-2 on Thursday. He planned to have the team practice Sunday, but rain spoiled that plan.
The team came back Monday and swung the bats in the batting cage before it had to put the tarp on the field to protect it from the bad weather the past dew days. On Wednesday, the team returned to practice and hoped to get a lot of repetitions in. The Trojans also will try to get some more repetitions in today before schools gets out to prepare them for a journey in which they will wear a bull's eye on their backs.
"They get tired of me preaching to them about it," Boyd said. "Like I said a minute ago, people start telling you that you're good an you listen, we're in trouble. Anytime you quit working or think you are good in any sport you play you tend to be at your most vulnerable point."
Boyd referred back to the PowerPoint presentation he gave to the team at the beginning of the season that said teams repeat 17-18 percent of the time. That's why he chose to call his team the "underdogs in disguise" as they began their run. The mentality appeared to hold true, as the New Hope lost only one game en route to the Class 5A, Region 2 title. A year ago, New Hope finished second to Oxford. This year, a bye has given New Hope a week to get its rotation in line for another run to a championship. While Boyd would have loved to have had more time to practice earlier this week, he said he and the Trojans are eager to get things started.
"We do have a solid team," Boyd said. "That's not being cocky. I really think we have a good team. If we play well, I think we will have a shot to beat a lot of teams. But you have to play the game. I have been a part of teams a lot of places -- here and other places -- when I have felt we were not as good and we won the series and I have been places where I felt like we were twice as good and we lost, so baseball is a funny game. That is why I think it is a great game because any day anything can happen, so you have to be prepared for anything. I hope our guys are. We have a good group of seniors that lead us really well and keep us straight. I think we are ready. I don't think that will be an issue, but I do know it is going to be tough because people are going to be gunning for us. We're going to try to bring our best effort and do the best we can."
Stillman feels the players will be able to get their minds right after not practicing for a few days. He said Boyd hasn't set a pitching rotation, but he said he will be ready whenever he is called on to prove himself again.
"I feel like I have done all right for my team," Stillman said. "We have three guys who are solid. ... I feel like the chances I have had to pitch I have done well, and I feel like they have been there to support me as well. I definitely expected to step up this year, so anything less than what I have done I wouldn't be pleased with. I am not pleased with where I am now. You always strive to get better."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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