May 11, 2015 10:31:40 AM
It's time for the New Hope High School baseball team to take the next step.
Granted, this one will be the team's toughest.
New Hope (24-5) will play for the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State championship for the fourth-straight season. Top-ranked Oxford (31-0) will be the opponent when the best-of-three series kicks off at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Edwin Moak Field in Oxford. Game 2 will be at 7 p.m. Friday at New Hope. If needed, Game 3 would be at 7 p.m. Saturday in Oxford.
"Throughout the season, Oxford has been the best team in the state," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "They are ranked in all of the national polls. The main thing I told our team is to enjoy the moment. There are only four teams left competing for the state championship. It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point. Now is the time that you just embrace the challenge. You go out and do your best. All of the pressure is on them, and we know how that feels."
In 2012, a young New Hope squad lost to Hernando in the North State championship series. The Trojans returned a year later and beat Hernando on the way to the first of back-to-back state championships.
Last season, New Hope beat Oxford two games to none in the North State championship series.
"We know they will be gunning for us," New Hope senior first baseman Wells Davis said after a regular-season meeting against Oxford. "It's a pride thing when you get put out of the playoffs by a certain team. You want to play that team again. We know what it takes to win a championship, and we know how well we will have to play against Oxford."
Oxford is the only undefeated team in the state. However, New Hope has been almost as hot in the past six weeks, winning 19 of its last 20 games. A year ago, New Hope won 20 of its final 21 games.
Of New Hope's five losses, three were region setbacks to Oxford. In 2014, New Hope won two of three regular-season meetings
"There is no doubt we have gotten hot at the right time," Boyd said. "People who saw us early in the year would not recognize this team. We still have a long way to go offensively, but the thing is the kids have found a way to win games. They have done that all year."
New Hope has swept playoff series from Neshoba Central, Pearl, and Lewisburg. In the six playoff wins, New Hope pitching has allowed five runs.
"We are the underdogs, but I think our team is really comfortable with that," New Hope senior Payton Lane said. "A year ago, the pressure was on us because we were the team that was supposed to win the championship. We weren't supposed to lose any games. We were supposed to be better than everybody else. There is a lot of pressure that goes along with that. Now Oxford is in that position, so it's like the first state championship team. We are back to trying to surprise people. A lot of people didn't know what to expect from New Hope this year, but we are here to show people we are ready to compete."
The series opener most likely will match New Hope senior Josh Stillman against junior Jason Barber. Barber hasn't allowed an earned run in 57 innings this season. He shut out New Hope twice in the regular season.
"Nobody has gotten him yet this year," Boyd said. "You would think he is due to at least give up a run or two. Hopefully, we will be the team that has the breakout night."
Barber outdueled Stillman 4-0 in an eight-inning win April 14 in the final region meeting of the regular season. That is New Hope's only loss in its recent run.
"Oxford has a great team," Stillman said. "We know how close we were. We were that close in two games (Oxford also won 2-1 in the meeting before that). We have to find that one more hit. It is something we are capable of doing."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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