May 21, 2014 3:25:20 AM
The New Hope High School baseball team is back in a familiar position.
But unlike last season, the Trojans have taken a different route to reach the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championship series.
Granted, New Hope has encountered similar ups and downs to its title run of a year ago, but this year's team has used the confidence it gained from the title march and the desire to make history as motivation to get back to Pearl.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, New Hope (30-3) will take on West Jones in Game 1 of the best-of-three Class 5A title series at Trustmark Park. Game 2 will be at 4 p.m. Friday. If needed, Game 3 will be Saturday at a time to be determined.
Last season, New Hope won its first state crown in 10 years by defeating Pascagoula in three games. It enters this year's series already having eclipsed its win total from 2013 (27) and unbeaten in six playoffs games.
"There has been some similarities, but last year was completely different in the fact we kind of went into the playoffs on a losing streak," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "We lost three or four games and you really question your identity and yourself. This year, I feel like our guys knew we had the ability to get there. We had some down times in the season as well, but not near the extent of last season."
Boyd set the tone at the beginning of the season when he told his team the statistics weren't with the Trojans in their bid to become the first group to win back-to-back state titles. He informed the Trojans that teams have a 17- to 18-percent chance of repeating as state champions in an attempt to keep a team with nine seniors focused and motivated. Boyd said Tuesday, a day before the team is scheduled to leave for Pearl, that the players have responded pretty much all season to having a bull's eye on their backs.
"A lot of programs and a lot of high school kids it is really hard once you have success to try to sustain that and to handle success," Boyd said. "I guess I have beat our kids down so much (by telling them) if you don't work you're not going to get it, or there is no chance if you start believing you are good when people tell you you are good. Everybody is after you, and everybody wants to beat you. I think they have kind of understood that if they don't work hard we're going to get everybody's best effort and if you don't work hard somebody is going to knock you off the mountain."
New Hope made sure it started on this year's playoff march from a different spot. A year ago, New Hope lost three of its final four regular-season games and entered a play-in series against Lake Cormorant (by virtue of finishing second in Region 2) uncertain about how it would play. The Trojans busted out by scoring 26 runs in two victories to start the run. A loss to Yazoo City in Game 1 of the next series only forced New Hope to go to three games. New Hope responded by scoring 21 runs in its two victories against Yazoo City and 16 more in its two victories against Ridgeland. New Hope then took two games from Hernando, the team that eliminated it in 2012, to reach the state title series. The teams split the first two games before New Hope won Game 3 3-2.
This season, New Hope won Region 2 to earn a first-round bye. Sweeps of Center Hill, Pearl, and Oxford have set the team up for a return trip to the spacious confines of Trustmark Park, the Double-A home of the Mississippi Braves, the affiliate of Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves.
New Hope senior pitcher J.C. Redden said the Trojans had to "dig deeper" last season to win the state title. This season, he said the team has played together to help make things easier on itself.
New Hope senior shortstop Will Golsan agreed and said the championship run provided valuable experience the Trojans have used to know what to expect and to know how to perform in pressure situations, like in Game 2 at Oxford.
"There were so many plays that could have gone different, but we knew how to handle them," Golsan said. "We dug deep into our pride and we pulled it out."
Several New Hope players have praised the depth of leadership on this year's team. Redden and Golsan are just two of many upperclassmen who have been vocal and lead-by-example leaders. Many of the seniors have played together since youth ball, so Redden and Golsan said the Trojans don't hesitate to speak up when something needs to be said to keep everyone in line.
Redden said the 2014 team lost several really good leaders from last season, including Tee Payne, who was on hand Tuesday at practice, but he said each player had to do their share to make up for what the Trojans lost.
"We all knew we had to all play an equal role and all be one leader or one team and come together and play together," Redden said.
Golsan said the bond the players share is "indescribable." He said he has enjoyed stepping up when he has had to and to set the example for younger players to follow. He and Redden are looking forward to setting the tone for two more games to help the team make history. The starting point will be different from a year ago, but all of the Trojans have learned their lessons and are ready to do something special.
"We like the pressure, and we like being able to prove people wrong," Redden said. "We just want to prove everybody wrong and prove history wrong that we can repeat and it can be done."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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