May 14, 2014 10:29:32 AM
The New Hope High School baseball team is basking in its new role as the favorites to the win the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championship.
A year ago, New Hope played its best baseball in May and won the tradition-rich program's first state baseball championship in 10 years. It took a lot of convincing of fans, coaches and players that the state title drought could end in 2013.
"Last year, everybody was saying you are not going to make it," New Hope senior outfielder Rooke Coleman said. "We couldn't go out and get the big head and say we were going to win state because we were also questioning ourselves. We really went out last year and had the mission to prove people wrong.
"This year, everybody is saying why don't we go out and make history and make it two in a row. Last year, we had a lot of people doubting us. This year, everybody is behind us. When you have the whole community behind you, it is a whole lot easier to do it."
Stacy Hester coached the New Hope baseball program for 18 years and led the team to three state championships. After his controversial departure following the 2009 season, Lee Boyd, who played for Hester, was brought in to get the program back in the right direction.
Last season, Boyd admitted leading one of the state's most successful programs at first seemed like a daunting task. Slowly, the players bought in and the parents came around to a new way of doing things. Boyd expanded the trust circle and began delegating tasks to people who knew how to get the job done.
Still, the question was could Boyd get the Trojans back among the state's elite. In 2012, a talented group of sophomores helped guide New Hope to the Class 5A North State title series, where it lost to Hernando.
Last season, a determined group of Trojans made getting to Trustmark Park and the state championship series its priority. However, the team still struggled. New Hope didn't win its region title and lost three of its final four games in the regular season.
"We really had to learn how to win last season," New Hope senior pitcher/outfielder Taylor Stafford said. "From the end of (the 2012 season), we were determined to make it to the state championship game. However, we faced a lot of adversity. We had times where we doubted ourselves."
New Hope then found its second wind and played its best baseball of the season. The Trojans had to play the play-in round of the playoffs since they didn't win the region. In the end, New Hope played 12 playoff games and won 10 of them. Especially sweet was a series sweep of Hernando.
The biggest storyline of the 2013 playoff run may have been the emergence of Stafford. Shortstop Will Golsan had already established himself as a Division I prospect and the team's leading hitter. In the postseason, Stafford shifted from closer to starting pitcher. He also led the team in batting average in the playoffs.
Every team has one player who emerges as a standout in a playoff run. He is an unsung hero the other team had one check mark by, but not two or three. For the 2013 Trojans, that player was Stafford.
This season, junior pitcher/third baseman Josh Stillman has stepped into that role. Stillman has been the perfect complement to the dynamic pitching duo of senior J.C. Redden and Stafford. He had a save in the Center Hill series and was dominant in a three-hit shutout against Pearl in the second round. Stillman also has emerged as a threat in the No. 2 hole in the lineup, and has provided that extra spice needed to help the state title defense run that much smoother.
While six position starters returning, the thoughts of a repeat state championship started as early as last June. The 2014 Trojans have less power but more offensive balance. The team again is one of the best in the state defensively. The pitching hasn't dropped off, either. Still, there are no guarantees in baseball. An injury could change a season. The Trojans also knew a bevy of close wins from last season could go the other way.
"We really tried to approach the season like we hadn't accomplished anything," Golsan said. "I know that sounds impossible. However, we knew the bull's eye would be there all season. Everybody wants to beat the champions, so we have spent the season focusing on our team. We have approached each practice and game as a way for us to make ourselves better."
The plan has worked. New Hope will carry a 15-game winning streak into Thursday's North State championship series opener with region rival Oxford, which handed New Hope its last defeat - 5-1 on March 28 in Columbus.
Coleman said after that loss the players held a team meeting and several players spoke about how to keep a season from spiraling out of control. After the meeting, the players vowed to work together more, to play better together, and to make the season more about the team than individuals.
New Hope woke up the next morning and hasn't lost since.
When you have a talented group of players and coaches working together for one goal, it can be achieved easier than you would think. When you factor in the enormous talent level of the New Hope baseball team, it is easy to see why this is its championship to defend.
Four more wins and Boyd and this staff can cement their all-time place among the New Hope greats. There is no reason to bet against it.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter