April 24, 2015 3:48:28 PM
New Hope High School baseball coach Lee Boyd called his infield together to discuss bunt defense.
One pitch later, that conversation didn't matter.
After Neshoba Central's Brandon Clark led off the seventh inning with a double in a scoreless game, New Hope pitcher Josh Stillman threw to shortstop Sam Taylor for the season's biggest pickoff.
In the 10th, Brody Stokes' sacrifice fly with the bases loaded lifted New Hope to a 1-0 win on Thursday night in Game 1 of the best-of-three series in the play-in round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs at Trojan Field.
New Hope can clinch the series with a win a 6 tonight in Philadelphia. A third game, if needed, would be Saturday at New Hope.
On a night where defense and pitching stood tall, the pickoff was the game's biggest play.
"We run that pickoff play all the time in practice," Taylor said. "It has come through
for us big time in several games this season. We really caught them off guard. Credit
to coach Boyd for making a great call. It may have saved the game."
Stillman admits fatigue began to kick in in the later innings. He had retired 13 straight Rockets before he issued his only walk with two outs in the sixth. In the seventh, Clark mashed a 2-1 pitch to deep left-center field to give Neshoba Central its second runner in scoring position.
"We made sure everybody knew what to do on the bunt," Stillman said. "Coach picked up on something in the dugout. I really didn't even realize the pick play had been signaled in at first. The adrenaline was pumping and I was so focused on getting the bunt defended properly. But it was a huge play in the game."
Clark and Stillman, both senior righthanders, matched one another pitch for pitch through nine innings.
Clark allowed three hits, walked two and struck out six in nine innings. Clark retired the
first six batters and the final 10 batters he faced. Stillman pitched a three-hitter with 11 strikeouts and a walk. He retired the final eight batters on a 112-pitch night.
"Josh is our senior leader, and he really put us on his back tonight," Taylor said. "There is
really no task too tall for him on the baseball field. Even though he was losing it there at the end, he was still battling."
In a game where the teams combined for eight hits and played errorless ball, New Hope junior catcher Will Godfrey had three hits, but the biggest one only went about 40 feet.
In the 10th, Taylor started things with a double to the gap. After an intentional walk, Godfrey
took and executed the bunt sign to perfection. After an attempt in which the ball rolled foul at the last second, Godfrey bunted the next pitch to the same location and had the roll go in his team's favor. A throw to first base wasn't in time to load the bases.
Stokes then lined a sacrifice fly to right field to end the game.
"Nothing was going to keep me out of this game because it was the playoffs," said Godfrey, who
had surgery Wednesday to repair a broken nose suffered in a game against Southaven. "I was
really floating, just excited to be out there. I knew I had to get the bunt down because that is how we were going to win the game. It's all about thelittle things. That is what a championship team does."
New Hope has won 18 postseason games in the past two seasons to claim back-to-back state
championships. Those New Hope teams played defense and pitched on a high level. However, each also had a solid offensive punch. While this team can pitch and defend with its counterparts, the offense has stalled. New Hope beat West Point in its final regular-season home game Monday with only three hits.
"It's not to say we aren't working on it," Boyd said. "The kids spent a couple of hours getting
cuts in yesterday. This is one of the hardest working groups we have ever had here. I really think the hits are going to start falling. We know how to pitch it and defend it. Josh was a warrior tonight. We found a way to win. That is what we have done all year. We know we have
offensive issues, but we are working to get there."
New Hope improved to 19-5 with the win, while Neshoba Central fell to 13-10. The Trojans have
won nine times by shutout and have won 14 of their last 15 games.
"We have played in a lot of big games. I think that really helps give us an edge late in games," Taylor said. "Defense has been good to us all year. We are really solid there. I think everybody would breathe a little easier if we could score runs earlier in games. However, we
are in the playoffs and we keep winning, so that's a good thing."
Undefeated Oxford won all three region games against New Hope in the regular season.
The teams could meet in the North State championship for a second-straight season.
"We really want Oxford again," Godfrey
said. "That doesn't mean we won't be ready for (tonight) and another chance to play Neshoba Central. They are very good. We saw that tonight. We just have a different mind-set and confidence level in the playoffs. Someone is going to have work hard to take the championship away from us."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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