May 17, 2014 5:29:04 PM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
OXFORD -- It would just serve to reason New Hope High School senior Taylor Stafford would make fans of rival Oxford miserable.
The senior center fielder/pitcher had already pitched three complete-game victories this season against their Class 5A rival before he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning Friday night.
"The minute that Will (Golsan) got that leadoff hit in the seventh, you start to believe the game will come down to your at-bat," Stafford said. "Those thoughts in your head become pretty intense and make it hard not to concentrate really. We've been through all of this before."
Before he dug in the batters box, New Hope coach Lee Boyd wanted to tell his star player, who will soon return to Oxford playing for Mississippi State agains Ole Miss, something to calm him down.
"I needed to put my arm around him, tell him how much I loved him and wanted him up in that situation," Boyd said. "Taylor Stafford is the best hitter in the state of Mississippi in my opinion. He needed to know I knew he'd come through."
After the pep talk, Stafford confidently ripped the game-winning single through the second base hole scoring Golsan and sending New Hope to its second consecutive state championship series in Pearl with a 3-2 victory. As he sprinted to first base, Stafford pumped his right fist in the air when he saw the ball squirt into right field.
"Anytime you play your rival, the juices are flowing and the adrenaline flows through you in a way that's different for any game, even a playoff game," Stafford said. "We respect Oxford and know they have some really good, tough players. It was important for us to win here and dog pile on their field."
The come-from-behind victory puts New Hope at 30-3 for the season and keeps it undefeated in postseason play. New Hope swept the best-of-three series for the Mississippi High School Activities North State championship two games to none, having also won 7-0 Thursday in New Hope.
The win also had some extra significance by the fact they got to celebrate on Oxford High School's home field. With the rivalry being escalated thanks their familiarity over the years and the lack of love loss between the two teams, the idea of a dog pile on the visitors pitching mound was extra sweet.
"Since I've taken the job, I think I may have won one game in Oxford before this season and now we've won three here this season," Boyd said. "We know how good they're going to be for the next few years and so to knock them out now is really special. We will hear from them again soon."
New Hope relied on a complete game pitching effort from senior JC Redden that saw the right-hander work himself in and out of jams during his 119-pitch affair. Redden's bat allowed New Hope to take an early 1-0 lead as he stroked a double to right-centerfield in the second inning.
"He had gotten me out on fastballs inside and so that was exactly what I was looking for," Redden said. "I needed to make sure he didn't strike me out on that type of pitch again."
Oxford (26-10) would take its first lead of the series in the fourth inning after back-to-back singles would eventually turn into runs. An error on a transfer for a middle infield double play combination allowed Oxford to take a 2-1 lead.
The Chargers would have had a bigger lead but sensational defensive plays in the infield allowed the Trojans to limit the damage. Oxford had the bases loaded with no outs in the frame but managed to just get a sacrifice fly and a RBI infield single as Redden continued to pitch out of trouble.
"I had all three of my pitches working tonight and I know I had a lot of pitches but that was completely on me and my responsibility," Redden said. "When I wasn't walking people, I was in complete command of what I was doing. I never felt like the game was out of my control."
Junior Josh Stillman tied the game in the fifth on a RBI-single to right-center as the top of the New Hope lineup continued to provide key hits against Oxford starter Houston Roth.
Oxford had a runner on third base with one out in the sixth as they tried to send the series back to New Hope for a deciding third game but Redden got a strikeout and weak ground out to the pitcher to set up the dramatics of the final inning.
The victory couldn't have been finalized until Redden loaded the bases again in the bottom of the seventh but a stellar defensive stab by Wells Davis at first base and a lazy fly out by Ben Bianco ended the Chargers season.
New Hope will now face South State champion West Jones (24-10) starting at 4 p.m. Thursday at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The Trojans and their nine seniors will try to win the program's first ever back-to-back state championships and seventh overall.
"We mapped it out before the season started," Redden said.
"You have a 12 percent chance of winning a state championship again the year after you do it the first time. The odds were against us for the first time in awhile and that's how we like it."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.