May 2, 2014 10:23:26 AM
New Hope High School senior Taylor Stafford had a smile on his face and finally had color back in his cheeks.
While battling a week-long sinus infection has been tough for the Mississippi State signee, a couple of immunizations helped him dress out Thursday night for the opening game against Center Hill in a best-of-three series to start the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
Stafford's bulldog mentality then got him on the pitcher's mound to start New Hope's 8-2 victory against Center Hill. However, fatigue and a lack of strength were obvious as his pinpoint accuracy was gone and the walks quickly mounted.
"He's a competitor. He's a senior," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "We had no plans to put him out there, but he wanted the ball. Sometimes you give in. We knew if this plan didn't work someone would pick up the pieces."
Junior Josh Stillman responded by throwing the final five innings. He retired 15 of the final 16 batters. Only a four-pitch walk with two outs in the third inning kept his appearance from perfection.
"Our defense is so great and the offense is going to get runs," Stillman said. "The thing is to throw strikes. As long as any of our pitchers throw strikes, we are going to be hard to beat. It's not really complex out there. We are challenging hitters, attacking, and throwing strikes."
When Stafford's time was done on the mound, the teams were locked in a 2-2 draw. Stillman then snuffed any hopes for the Mustangs.
"Josh really competed," Boyd said. "He has done that all year. He makes you hit his pitch. He was just super effective when we needed a lift because we knew we might have to make some changes to our normal pitching plans."
New Hope (25-3) breezed to its 13th-straight win by collecting 11 hits and scoring in five innings. Stillman drove in a pair of runs with three singles. Wells Davis had two hits and started the scoring with a two-run single in the first. Will Golsan and Payton Lane also had multiple hits.
"We are really swinging the bats with a lot of confidence," Davis said. "It's the playoffs, so we know we have to find that second level. The team got a lot of confidence from (winning the state championship) last season. That has really helped us get prepared for this moment."
Being prepared for the playoff opener was a concern for Boyd and his staff. New Hope's last regular-season game -- a 4-2 victory against previously undefeated West Lauderdale -- was a week ago. This week hasn't been close to normal for the New Hope community, as Monday's severe weather outbreak caused some hardships for several residents and businesses.
New Hope practiced for the first time in six days Wednesday and had to put it all together in a hurry to take on Center Hill.
"I thought we really had some rust when we started playing," Boyd said. "You could tell we had not been at it hard in a game situation in a while. Every team is going to face adversity in the playoffs. Hopefully, this was ours. Hopefully, we will be able to go on the road and win the second game because things become much easier when you can win this series in two games and advance."
The series will continue at 6 p.m. today at Center Hill. The Mustangs (16-16) will try to force a third game, which would be back at New Hope at 4 p.m. Saturday. Instead, New Hope hopes tonight's game is the second of eight wins necessary to repeat as Class 5A champions.
"We have a lot of momentum, but the biggest thing is to not let up," Stillman said. "We have to play each game like we haven't earned anything yet. That is the big challenge."
Stafford also showed a way Thursday to overcome some adversity. After his pitching stint ended, he elected to do some destruction with a bat. His towering, sixth-inning three-run home run to right field had to make him feel better, even if only for a couple of hours.
"That is what this team is all about," Boyd said. "Someone always finds a way to pick up the load. There are a number of different ways to help a team a win game. Our guys have been finding those ways."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter