April 29, 2015 10:45:47 AM
PEARL -- New Hope High School sophomore pitcher Peyton Buckner admits he was nervous before his first postseason start.
The nerves vanished when he saw his teammates ready to lend support.
"I just looked out there and reminded myself I was going into battle with the best defense in the state," Buckner said. "If you got that going for you, the job is a lot easier. After that, I just focused on throwing strikes. My teammates did the rest."
Buckner threw strikes and New Hope made enough plays to beat Pearl 3-0 on Tuesday in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A first-round playoff series at Pearl Pirate Park.
New Hope can win its second playoff series this season at 6:30 Thursday night in Game 2 in Columbus. If needed, a third game would be Saturday in Pearl.
"We felt like Peyton was ready for this opportunity," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "The biggest thing about him is he fills the strike zone. He had thrown most of our Saturday games this year and thrown really well. At the same time, there was concern because he had not thrown in any of the playoff games, or thrown hardly any of the region games.
"We wanted three innings. We got a whole lot more."
Boyd didn't want to use start staff ace Josh Stillman, who threw 112 pitches Thursday in a 1-0 win against Neshoba Central in 10 innings to start the playoffs. Fellow senior Brody Stokes threw Friday night in a 7-1 win that clinched that series, so Buckner was the next pitcher up.
"This was unbelievable, just coming up to the varsity team as a sophomore (and coming) back from an injury (that required minor surgery in the fall)," Buckner said. "Tonight was indescribable. I can't tell you how great that felt."
New Hope (21-5) followed a similar script that has netted victories in 16 of its last 17 games. The Trojans played errorless ball and threw their 10th shutout of the season. Scoring opportunities were limited, but they cashed in the ones they needed.
"Our pitching has been so good that sometimes we sit back," New Hope senior first baseman Wells Davis said. "We can sit back on a 2-0 lead and know the pitchers are going to shut them out. We need to spread the gap and make it harder on other teams. For now, though, this is what we have been doing and it has worked out well."
New Hope's season could be summed up in two first-inning at-bats. Davis was hit by a pitch with two outs and stole second base without a throw. Payton Lane then lined a base hit to shallow right field. Running with contact, Davis easily scored.
New Hope used two hits to score twice in the sixth. The Trojans, who had five hits, hit three balls past the infield.
"You never get comfortable when you are playing with a one-run lead," Lane said. "However, our pitching has been so stout. You really fall into a rhythm and you feel good about your chances and you forget it is a 1-0 or 2-1 lead."
New Hope has won five times when scoring three or fewer runs this season. The Trojans entered the game hitting .273.
"We are not where we want to be offensively," Boyd said. "I have said that a number of times this season. However, these kids have a grit and a determination about them. They know the tradition of the program, and they have adopted that whatever-it-takes mentality. Hopefully, we are close to that breakout game.
"In the meanwhile, we will keep working hard and try to win games any way we can."
Lane said the makeup of this year's team is different than the past two state championship teams. However, that hasn't altered the goals.
"Last season, we had a bunch of doubles hitters up and down the lineup," Lane said. "If we had the bases loaded, we were going to get at least three runs out of it. This year's team is different. We have to scrap and claw for everything. We really have to fight for every base. That doesn't make the win feel any different. We just have to find a way."
Buckner helped New Hope do that by allowing five hits and striking out six in six-plus innings. The best threat for Pearl (17-10) came in the first when it left the bases loaded.
In the 2013 state championship run, Taylor Stafford emerged as that extra late-season pitcher needed to make a title run. A year ago, that role fell to Stillman. Buckner launched his campaign Tuesday night.
"He really didn't surprise us because that is what he has done all year," Davis said. "He shut out Columbus earlier this season. I knew if he came in with the right mind-set and didn't let the game become too big for himself that he was going to do just fine. He was really awesome out there."
Pearl started the seventh with a walk and bloop single. Boyd then summoned Stillman. A ground ball out and two strikeouts followed as Stillman needed 10 pitches to put the game in the win column.
"We were looking at tonight as a bullpen session for Josh," Boyd said. "We wanted him to throw just that little bit so he would be really ready for Thursday. We know the challenge will be just as big for us in the second game of the series. When you are struggling to score runs, every game is a big challenge."
Pearl can relate. The Pirates have been shut out in three of their past four games, and have scored one run in the last 26 innings.
Those numbers weren't on Buckner's mind. Instead, it was all about helping the school win its 21st playoff game in three seasons.
"This team is really confident," Buckner said. "Coach Boyd told us at the beginning of the year that even though we were a new team, we still had a bull's eye on our back. People were expecting New Hope to fall off this year. We are here to prove those people wrong."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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