May 8, 2014 10:58:28 AM
In most cases, championship puzzles take years to assemble.
In addition to needing quality feeder programs to help their programs reload, coaches have to find the right blend of personalities and skills to make their teams click.
Even though the names of the players and the roles they play change from year to year, the New Hope High School baseball team appears to have the ability to withstand graduation losses and injuries to contend for state titles every year.
This season is no different. While seniors like Will Golsan, who will play baseball at Ole Miss, and Taylor Stafford, who will play baseball at Mississippi State, may be the "biggest" names on the roster, the 2014 Trojans in many ways are very similar to the 2013 squad that won the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state title: They are the sum of their parts.
Whether it is senior catcher Jake Hollis' maturity handling the pitching staff, senior outfielder Rooke Coleman's production in the middle of the lineup, senior infielder Parker Earhart's leadership, or junior Payton Lane's efforts on the mound and at the plate, New Hope has handled the pressure of playing with a bull's eye on its back because it has received contributions from so many players.
"I guess it is just chemistry," Earhart said. "We're all close-knit. I wouldn't say we are all equal, but we all have better than average potential. We have a couple of spot-on players, but once the year goes on it is really not that one person. Everyone has stepped up and had their big moment. Then the next person will step up. It just gos from there. I think everyone just builds off each other.
"Once that one person gets that initial hit, it is on for everyone."
New Hope (26-3) will look to keep that run going at 6:30 p.m. Friday when it plays host to Pearl in the semifinals of the Class 5A North State best-of-three playoff series at Trojan Field. Much like New Hope did a year ago in its championship march, its bats are getting hot at the right time. Coupled with a balanced pitching staff that includes J.C. Redden, Josh Stillman, and Stafford, the Trojans are proving they are quite capable of defending their state title.
New Hope has moved one win from equaling its total from last season despite the odds not being against it from repeating as state champs. New Hope coach Lee Boyd emphasized at the beginning of the year how difficult it would be for the team to win another title in an attempt to help everyone focus. Earhart said the team went through a lull in the middle of the season around the time it lost to Oxford. The players said a team meeting in which everybody expressed their thoughts helped get the issues out in the open and made it easier for everyone to settle into roles.
"None of us want each other to slack because we know if the other one slacks, the whole team can suffer it," Hollis said. "We all keep each other up and all take responsibility when we need to. If somebody needs to step up, they do it and nobody has a problem with it."
Hollis said the fact so many of the players have played together since they were 7 or 8 years old makes it easier for teammates to speak up to another. On a team with nine seniors, 10 juniors, and seven sophomores, that is a lot of team leaders, but the chemistry the players have pieced together has enabled them to build on last season's success.
"At the beginning, it was just two or three people here or two or three people there," Coleman said. "Everybody is liable to get a hit. Now one through nine are able to get a hit. You have people who normally wouldn't get hits are knocking the piss out of the baseball. We are all starting to play together as a team rather than individuals."
Lane has made the biggest statistical contribution of the four upperclassmen. After hitting better than .300 last season, Lane has pushed his batting average to .355, which is third on the team. He also is third on the team in hits (33), fourth in RBIs (22), and second in doubles (eight). He has proven to be a reliable pitcher, too, going 4-0 with a 2.19 ERA in 22 1/3.
Hollis, who saw considerable time as a starter last season before he suffered an injury late in the year, has guided the pitching staff with an experienced hand. Expected to sign an offer to play baseball in college Friday, Hollis is hitting .293 and is tie for sixth on the team with 24 hits. He also has 12 RBIs and four doubles.
Coleman teamed with Tee Payne and Lane last season in the middle of the lineup to fuel the Trojans' postseason run. This season, the left fielder has been in the middle of a lot of the team's scoring. He is second on the team with 33 runs and is tied with Hollis with 24 hits. He is hitting .279 with 12 RBIs.
Earhart has provided stability as a senior leader. He is hitting .232 with 21 runs, 16 hits, and 13 RBIs.
Put it all together and the puzzle is shaping up to resemble another championship.
"You can't really think about (winning another state title)," Lane said. "You just have to go out there and do your thing. If one guy hits, the next guy hits. You just have to put your mind in neutral sometimes and just let it go. At the plate, you see the ball and react to it. You can't think about it. It is baseball. You can't think too much. You have to have fun. Coach Boyd tries to emphasize it a lot. It is a game. Have fun, but winning is fun, too."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.