May 10, 2014 11:39:57 PM
The New Hope High School baseball team is playing with the confidence of a defending state champion.
"It's not a cocky confidence," New Hope senior left fielder Rooke Coleman said. "It's more of a confidence that comes from having been there and done that. Last season, our fans were doubting us and they didn't know if we could go all the way. This year is different. This year everybody expects us to (win a state championship)."
New Hope remained undefeated in its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoff run Saturday afternoon with a 3-0 victory against Pearl at Trojan Field.
The best-of-three second round series will move to Pearl for a 6 p.m. start Monday. A third game, if necessary, would be back at New Hope at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
For the Trojans, confidence garnered for the school's state championship run in 10 years has given this team the necessary push to keep working hard. New Hope has won 14 straight games and not lost in six weeks.
"This team has a totally different mind-set this year," New Hope senior outfielder Taylor Stafford said. "We talked about the importance of making history and going back to back. We feel like when we play our very best, there isn't another team in the state that can beat us. It's a lot different than last season when we were still learning how to win, even late in the season."
For New Hope (27-3), things become much easier when junior right-hander Josh Stillman takes to the hill. Increasing his workload since Stafford has been battling a sinus infection and flu symptoms, Stillman turned in another masterpiece Saturday. He threw 85 pitches, allowed three hits and faced three batters past the minimum in the 1-hour, 14-minute victory.
"We give God the glory for placing us in this position," Stillman said. "It's a great a relief when you have the defense behind you that I have. You have total confidence you can throw any pitch at any time and the guys behind you will make the plays."
New Hope did all of its offensive damage in the first inning. After that, Pearl senior pitcher Tanner Jones held up his end to the pitcher's duel. Jones allowed only a Stafford double in the sixth in the final five New Hope at-bats. The Pirates retired 12 straight Trojans from the second through fifth innings.
"Sometimes you are going to pitch it and defend it and not hit," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "There will be another night when the offense comes through and they are the reason why we win. That is the best thing about this team is we aren't dependent on one facet of play or on one group of players."
Jones walked Will Golsan and Stillman on back-to-back at-bats to start the game. Stafford then laid down the perfect bunt. Jones slipped when fielding the ball and couldn't make the play at first. With the bases loaded, Coleman ripped a two-run double to the outfield gap. Coleman later scored on a ground ball out by Wells Davis.
"When you see three runs early, the way Josh is pitching these days, it is really big," Stafford said. "It just seems like we feel like we will always find a way. It may be pitching. It may be defense. It wasn't our best offensive night but we did enough. Josh really changes the whole dynamic of the game when he is controlling the other team like this."
New Hope has relied on top-notch pitching and quality defense for the success in its stretch run. New Hope has allowed five or more runs twice in its last 17 games.
"The pitching this season has been incredible," Coleman said. "It's great to play defense behind all of these guys because they are going to get quick outs. Each game, we go into thinking about putting together one big inning. We know if we can put pressure on the other team early, we are in good shape. In this game, we built that early advantage and were able to ride that momentum."
Stafford had a single and double for two of New Hope's three hits. Dalton Sullivan had two of the three hits for Pearl (18-12).
Despite last season's state championship, New Hope still feels the pressure is on them.
"We have played with a bull's eye all year," Stillman said. "It is something that we are comfortable with now. Everybody has these high expectations for us, but we have them, too. The thing is to stay hungry and to keep doing what we are doing. Getting back (to the state championship) is something we know we can do if we stay within ourselves."
A season ago, New Hope actually began the playoffs in the play-in round series. In the end, two of the five playoff series went to a third and decisive game. This season, New Hope plans to keep it more simple. As region champions, the play-in round was bypassed and the team is 3-0 in postseason and has only trailed once.
"We want sweeps," Coleman said. "We really want to sweep each round. We really don't want any of these series to go to a third game, because you never know what happens then. The main thing is confidence. We come into each game expecting something good to happen."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter