August 9, 2014 9:04:46 PM
When the 2014 high school baseball season began, New Hope's Josh Stillman knew he would have a much larger role for the Trojans.
However, the junior pitcher/infielder could never have imagined he would be on the mound the night New Hope won its second straight Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championship.
"It was the most awesome experience of my life," Stillman said. "When the season started, all I could do was work hard and hope for the best. I wanted to be there to help my team anyway I could."
In the end, Stillman may have been the biggest surprise of New Hope's run to a seventh state championship. For the season, he hit .337 with 34 base hits and 31 RBIs from the one of the top three spots in the lineup. On the mound, Stillman finished 8-0 with a 0.92 earned run average.
For this success, Stillman and former Columbus High standout Trace Lee are sharing The Dispatch's Prep Baseball All-Area Player of Year honors. New Hope fifth-year coach Lee Boyd and Columbus eighth-year coach Jeffrey Cook are also sharing Coach of the Year honors.
"Josh may have been our unsung hero on this team," Boyd said. "He really flew under the radar all season but he had big game after big game. On the mound, we really needed one more answer and he really provided that."
Stillman played a reserve role on New Hope's 2013 state championship team. Almost every starter was back from that squad. However, Stillman knew he would be asked to solidify the infield, especially with fellow mates J.C. Redden and Will Golsan also pitching.
"The second championship was a lot more exciting because we really had a big target on our backs," Stillman said. "We are the only team (at New Hope) to (win back-to-back state titles), so it is very cool to be a part of that. Last year, I was a part-time player. This year, I had a major role on the team. So this championship really meant a lot to both me and my team."
Stillman credits Boyd with playing a major role in the team's 32-4 final record. At one time, New Hope won 18 straight games before falling to West Jones in the opening game of the Class 5A state championship series.
"At the beginning of the off-season, he told us we could come back and be complacent," Boyd said. "Our other choice was to come back and make history. He wasn't going to settle for the first option. That is the thing with Coach Boyd: He is going to push you as far as you possibly can be pushed. He doesn't accept settling. That makes each of us better as both a player and person."
Stillman took those values on the road this summer, as he played with the Golden Spikes organization based out of Meridian. The team played multiple tournaments throughout the southeast. A busy summer was capped last week when Stillman competed in the Under Armour Showcase sponsored by The Baseball Factory in California.
"I really enjoyed the chance to play with guys from all over," said Stillman, who was one of two Mississippians in California. "Five teams traveled to the west coast to compete in the showcase. I really didn't know what to expect, playing with so many other great athletes. But I felt like I played well and held my own. Even the superstar players put their pants on the same way the rest of us do. So it was an encouraging summer and a lot of fun."
Boyd saw extraordinary growth in Stillman's game this past season. He feels like the summer work will only enhance his ability to lead and perform at a high level in the season ahead.
"We are counting on Josh and he knows that," Boyd said. "He had a great group of guys to learn the leadership role from. Even though we lost a lot of guys, we expect to be very competitive. Josh and some of the others will take the initiative to make sure that happens."
Stillman feels like the opportunity to learn from a bevy of seniors on last season's team made the difference.
"The players I really looked up to were the seniors on last year's team," Stillman said. "It's tough to become a better player if you are not on a good team. In our case, with this good group of seniors, it really pushed you to be even better. You wanted to play to the older guys' level. They really helped me out. The biggest thing I learned this summer is how great our defense was (at New Hope). I think that is one of those things you took for granted. We were a special team in a lot of ways."
Support at home
Also special for Stillman has been the love and support of his family.
Parents Faith and Marty Stillman have been supportive of Josh's career, as well as older sisters Jenna, Jalyn and Juliana. Stillman said his parents are at every game and even though they are busy with their own interests, he can count on his sisters at almost every game. Cousin Reed will also be a senior on this year's team.
"It has been a huge support system to me," Stillman said. "When you look out there and see your family, it makes you feel like you can do anything. My dad has always provided and made sure everything that I could possibly need to be successful in baseball."
Hoping to be successful will be the 2015 Trojans. University of South Alabama commitment Wells Davis and Stillman will team up to help a youthful squad with high expectations.
"Playing for this school, we don't expect to be bad," Stillman said. "We expect to come out fighting. If teams think we aren't going to be as good, let them think that because they will be surprised. We are fixing to work even harder than we did last season."
A year ago, the hard work saw Stillman on the mound at Trustmark Park, throwing a 44-pitch, one-hit complete-game shutout in an 11-0 victory over West Jones. The dog pile started with him on the bottom. In no way could the dreams from last fall been that sweet.
"I expected a great year," Stillman said. "Then it turned out even better."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter