Prep Player of Week: Stafford helps carry New Hope back to state championship series

May 19, 2014 10:42:02 PM

Adam Minichino - aminichino@cdispatch.com

 

Talk about terrible timing. 

 

But anyone who has had migraine headaches knows sitting still in a dark, quiet place is the only thing you want to do when you experience that throbbing pain. 

 

Imagine trying to hit or to throw a baseball, let alone play a key role on a team's march to a second consecutive state championship. 

 

If you can, imagine Taylor Stafford going about two weeks with that pain and wondering if a mysterious ailment that was giving him migraines was going to derail his dreams of a perfect ending to his final high school baseball season. 

 

"It was crazy," Stafford said. "I wondered if they would ever figure out what it was. ... They checked my white blood cell count. It was double what it was supposed to be. They tried giving me a shot to decrease it and it didn't do much. They couldn't figure out what was going on in my head. The migraine medicine wasn't working. They told me they were going to check if there wasn't a tumor." 

 

Stafford admitted that comment made him pause, but deep down he believed it wasn't that serious, even if he couldn't blame his problems on a sinus infection. Still, the headaches persisted. It wasn't until doctors finally diagnosed Stafford with swollen blood vessels behind his eyes that he was able to get some relief. 

 

"I felt like a new person," Stafford said. "I wasn't myself and I was struggling offensively and pitching. I wasn't 100 percent out there. As soon as I was able to get better I was able to kick into another gear and have more energy and enthusiasm." 

 

Stafford showed last week he is back to his old self. The New Hope High School senior left-hander pitched a complete-game one-hitter to beat Oxford in Game 1 of the Class 5A North State title series.  

 

In Game 2, he had the game-winning hit in the top of the seventh inning to send New Hope back to the best-of-three state championship series. 

 

For his accomplishments, Stafford is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week. 

 

"It is definitely up there with some of the top performances I have had in my career at New Hope," Stafford said of the complete game, his third victory this season against Oxford. "It was just a game emotionally that was big for our team. There had been a lot of talking between the teams and we wanted to come out and make a statement and give us an opportunity to dog pile on their field in the next game." 

 

Stafford's efforts on the mound and at the plate set the stage for New Hope (30-3) to play in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championship series against West Jones. 

 

Game 1 of the best-of-three title series will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Game 2 will be at 4 p.m. Friday. If needed, Game 3 will be a time to be determined Saturday. 

 

To get there, though, Stafford (7-0, 0.84 ERA) didn't take no for an answer from coach Lee Boyd and insisted he start on the mound against Center Hill in the team's first game in the Class 5A North State playoffs.  

 

Even though he didn't have the stamina to go the distance and was just starting to recover from the migraines, Stafford pitched two innings before giving way to Josh Stillman, who closed an 8-2 victory. Stafford aided that victory with a three-run home run. 

 

By then, Stafford was on his way back to 100 percent. After going through a host of tests, including a CT scan and a MRI, to determine he had inflamed blood vessels that were causing his headaches, Stafford said he needed to take medication for a couple of weeks before he finally started to feel like himself. 

 

"Any jerky movement would hurt my head a lot," Stafford said. "I got to the point on the mound where I wasn't giving my all and I didn't have much velocity because I couldn't go all out out there." 

 

Stafford said a one-inning outing against Pearl in the state semifinal round helped him regain his rhythm on the mound, which made it easier for him to take the mound against Oxford at home in front of the home crowd.  

 

The Mississippi State signee responded against Oxford, mixing his pitches and spotting his fastball in what he said was by far his strongest outing against the Chargers this season. 

 

"I stuck with fastball and curveball," Stafford said. "I would have went with my changeup if I needed it, but my fastball and curveball were working and I didn't want to get away from that. Velocity wise, that is probably one of the best games I have had. My arm felt great. I haven't thrown that hard against them. That was probably a difference-maker." 

 

That victory set the stage for Stafford and the Trojans to deliver even more drama Friday in a 3-2 victory. Hitless in his first two at-bats, Stafford took a curveball on the first pitch and knew at some point in that at-bat he would get another one.  

 

He said he tried to remain calm knowing that he was in position to give New Hope the lead and to dog pile on the Chargers' field. He stayed within himself and didn't try to do too much and drove a curveball through the right side. Not only did Stafford's hit allow the Trojans to dog pile on the field of one of their fiercest rivals, but it also secured a shot at another title a year after New Hope beat Pascagoula in 2013 for its first state championship since 2003. 

 

"Coach (Lee) Boyd called me over down the third-base line and gave me some encouragement," Stafford said. "He tole me there was no one he would rather have up there, so that gave me a little bit of confidence. I am not having the best year at the plate, and a lot of that is because I am beating myself up mentally before I even get up there, so I tried to block that out." 

 

For Stafford, a first-team All-State pick as a utility player last season, a chance to beat a rival in the North State title series and to win a second consecutive state championship for the first time in school history would be an ideal way to end a high school career. 

 

To do that, Stafford likely will have to play a dual role later this week. It's something he has been doing ever since he first started for New Hope as a freshman, so don't expect the left-hander to be fazed by the enormity of the moment. In fact, he and his classmates are looking forward to sharing in the opportunity to make history. 

 

"It is something we talked about at the beginning of the year," Stafford said. "The odds were against us to repeat, and with all of the great tradition Nw Hope has had in baseball, one thing they have never done is repeat. That is something we told ourselves we really wanted to do. That was our motivation for the year so we didn't get complacent. We just know if we play our game and stick with who we are we are going to be really tough to beat." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.