April 30, 2015 12:21:00 AM
New Hope High School baseball coach Lee Boyd does not use the phrase "title defense."
"Never been a fan of saying that we are defending the title," Boyd said. "If you are defending something that means it can be taken away from you. The 2013 and 2014 state championships are ours forever. So really we aren't defending anything, we are simply trying to win another."
Yes, it's that time of year. New Hope is again preparing for a deep run in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A baseball playoffs.
New Hope went 10 years between titles before winning the 2013 state championship. With almost everybody back from that team, the 2014 Trojans were odds-on favorites to repeat. They did just that with relative ease.
This season began totally different this season with New Hope being asked to almost replace all of its starters and all but one member of its pitching staff.
Still, New Hope enters tonight's playoff matchup with Pearl with a 21-5 overall record. New Hope has won 16 of its last 17 games, including a 3-0 ledger in the playoffs.
In the past three seasons, New Hope is a gaudy 21-3 in postseason games.
Still, this season has been unlike any other at the school. The 2014 Trojans talked in the preseason about defending their title. It was assumed by most around the state that the championship was New Hope's to lose.
Players openly admitted anything less than a state championship would be a disappointment. New Hope won 32 games, thanks in large part to being motivated to become the first team in the school's rich baseball history to repeat as state champions.
This season, there was no championship talk. There was no state title defense talk. Instead, New Hope simply wanted to see if they could put a competitive team on the field.
"We really begin with the same goals every year out here and that is to win a state championship," New Hope senior first baseman Wells Davis said. "Last season, that was the expectation. This season it was more like a hope. We were going to work hard and see how far we could go."
In the preseason, Boyd promised the Trojans would continue to be the hardest working team in the state. However, No. 1 in the state and nationally-ranked Oxford was in the region. The undefeated Chargers took all three regular-season meetings from the Trojans.
However, New Hope took a great deal on confidence from the final two meetings, a 2-1 loss at Oxford and a 4-0, eight-inning defeat at home.
"You don't want to measure yourself from losses because that is not what we do around here," New Hope senior pitcher Josh Stillman said. "However, we know Oxford is considered to be the best team in the state. We were right there. We were one hit away from winning two different games, so we know if we see them in the playoffs, we have a chance to have a different result."
There is little doubt that when the season started not even Boyd was totally sure of what he had past Stillman and Davis. Davis is headed to the University of South Alabama, while Stillman pitched the 2014 clinching win in the state championship series and has signed with Northeast Mississippi Community College.
While the 2014 lineup could be written in pen two months before the season started, the 2015 lineup card was very much in flux. However, with each passing week, the team believed a little more. With each passing week, the talk of a state title defense became just a tad bit louder.
The 2013 Trojans had a huge advantage in that team flew under the radar throughout the regular season. Oxford also won the region title that season. However, New Hope got secretly better throughout the season.
Taylor Stafford became that one extra pitcher the team needed in 2013, much in the same way that Stillman did a season ago. Sophomore Peyton Buckner may be on a similar path after he threw six innings of shutout ball Tuesday night in 3-0 win over Pearl, placing the Trojans in a position to clinch the series tonight.
A lot of other similarities can be drawn from that team and this team.
"We have had a lot of fun this year," New Hope senior third baseman Payton Lane said. "The goal is to win a third ring. We set that goal at the beginning of the season. Last year, it was so much hard work and a lot of pressure because we were expected to win. This year has been different. We take it a game at a time and the wins have added up."
New Hope began the year with an ace pitcher and a coach with a state-championship pedigree. It took quite some time but now the Trojans have the swagger, too. The program will always have the intimidation factor. Rest assured, Oxford would like to see New Hope derailed before a potential North State championship series.
The team now knows they belong and they now know they can win a state championship. That is a good combination to have when the calendar hits May.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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