May 22, 2014 10:18:02 AM
If nothing else, the world of sports can teach the participants there are no guarantees in life.
While the New Hope High School baseball team set the modest goal of repeating as Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state champions this season, the Trojans knew one injury or other bad fortune could turn the dream into a nightmare.
So with a resolve to work even harder than it did a season ago, New Hope has navigated the waters and stands two wins away from repeating as state champions. It would be quite the feat considering New Hope, which has six state championships, has never won back-to-back titles.
New Hope (30-3) will try to change that at 7 tonight when it takes on West Jones (24-10) in Game 1 of a best-of-three series at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Game 2 will be at 4 p.m. Friday. If needed, Game 3 will be Saturday at a time to be determined.
"When last season ended, we talked about making history and what it would mean to win back-to-back championships," New Hope junior Josh Stillman said. "It's a totally different feel this season. Last year, we were trying to win a championship because nobody on the team had done it before. This year, we started with a bull's eye on our back. We know everybody all year has wanted to knock us off. We have really thrived off that challenge."
New Hope enters the state championship series on an 18-game winning streak. The Trojans have won all six playoff games they have played. Only Friday night's 3-2 victory against Oxford in Game 2 of the North State championship series was in doubt entering the seventh inning. New Hope has won twice in the playoffs by shutout.
"When the season started, we knew we would pitch it well and defend it well," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "One of the biggest things about this team is the defense. We pretty much have made all of the plays the entire season. When you play that well defensively, it is a great relief because the pitchers know they don't have to do it all on their own."
In the playoffs, New Hope has allowed 19 hits and three earned runs in 38 innings. Senior Taylor Stafford, senior J.C. Redden, and Stillman have teamed up to give the Trojans a rare 1-2-3 pitching rotation. Should this series extend to three games, each pitcher should draw a start.
"The pitching has really been great," New Hope junior Wells Davis said. "We know it does not matter who is on the mound that we have a great chance to win. Offensively, we try to get runners on and move them over. We know if we can get a pitcher a lead, they will throw with even more confidence. It has been a good combination."
Boyd likes to stretch his pitchers out. With none of the New Hope big three being known as strikeout pitchers, it allows each to throw deeper in ballgames. Still, New Hope pitchers have struck out 222 in 212 2/3 innings.
"For the most part, we pitch to contact," Boyd said."The thing is efficiency. If our pitchers throw strikes and pitch to contact, we feel like we are going to make almost all of the plays in the field. It is all about efficiency. We have been more efficient this season."
West Jones defeated East Central two games to one in the South State championship. The Mustangs finished third in their region in the regular season but have beaten four teams from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to reach the state championship series for the first time since 1986.
New Hope will attempt to come back down from an emotional high of sweeping region rival Oxford for the North State championship. New Hope won 7-0 at home before winning 3-2 in Lafayette County less than 24 hours later. Oxford handed New Hope its last loss in this season -- more than six weeks ago.
"There is nothing like a big rivalry game to get you excited about playing," Stafford said. "We had a lot of fans there and (Oxford) had a lot of fans there, too. It was exciting to play in that type of environment. We are really focused now, though. We know the task isn't over yet. We have got to come out and play our kind of baseball two more times to really make some history."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
3. Smith anxious to face hometown school in Orange Bowl COLLEGE SPORTS
4. MSU football team adds players for 2015 COLLEGE SPORTS
5. MSU looks for bounce-back performance in Jackson COLLEGE SPORTS