May 12, 2015 9:16:43 AM
When Lee Boyd was hired, the New Hope High School baseball program was looking to return to the state's elite.
In his six seasons as head coach, the Trojans have climbed back to the top of mountain. Apparently, they plan to stay there.
New Hope will face No. 1 Oxford tonight in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State championship series. This team has shown Boyd has built a program with staying power.
New Hope has won 23 or more games in each of his six seasons as coach. The Trojans haven't lost more than nine games. That has happened three times.
New Hope won the Class 5A state championship in 2013. The Trojans had last won a state title in 2003. With almost everyone back, New Hope repeated as state champions in 2014. Despite New Hope being one of the state's gold standard programs, it was the first repeat championship for the Trojans.
It was then assumed New Hope would fall back to the middle of the pack this season. Apparently, the Trojans didn't get that memo.
New Hope enters tonight's game with a 24-5 record. In most years, New Hope's resume would place the squad in the favorite's role for the state championship. However, this season has been different because undefeated Oxford has won at a pace usually seen about once every 10 years in this state.
New Hope has won with small ball, excellent defense, and even better pitching. From watching the Trojans the past four seasons, it is easy to tell defense is something the team takes great pride in. Teams don't excel defensively at this level without working long hours at their craft.
Each season, New Hope has begun the year with an unquestioned ace. From there, it has been a "someone-will-come-through" approach.
This year, Josh Stillman has assumed that role of ace. A crafty senior right-hander, Stillman really grew up last season when he pitched in several playoff games on a senior-laden squad.
One can tell the growth of Stillman's game from last season. While his offensive numbers haven't lived up to the expectation from a year ago, there is no question he is the squad's undisputed leader on the mound.
Stillman was the hard-luck loser in a 2-1 region game at Oxford and a 4-0, eight-inning region loss at home to Oxford. His last couple of playoff starts haven't been vintage Stillman. However, it is nit-picking to tear apart his 3-0 shutout win against Pearl and 3-2 two-hitter against Lewisburg. Those wins clinched series for New Hope. In the opening round, Stillman was dynamite in a 10-inning 1-0 win against Neshoba Central.
There is little question Stillman will need to pitch at that level in this series for New Hope to return to the state finals.
From there, senior Brody Stokes has emerged as the squad's No. 2 pitcher. Sophomore Peyton Buckner has proven he has pitching staff leader potential with a couple of gutsy wins down the stretch, too.
New Hope has won 19 of its last 20 games. The winning ways take on even more meaning when one looks at New Hope's offense. New Hope enters tonight's game hitting .269. The 2013 state champions hit .325, while last year's team hit .310. Even those numbers aren't the usual eye-popping numbers of a state champion. Oxford enters the series with a .345 batting average.
The offensive numbers suggest New Hope has re-invited itself. The Trojans still run the bases the same way. They have the same set of signs. They break the pregame huddle the same way. However, they play a different style of ball. They play one that one works for this team.
That is called coaching.
When the season began, Boyd wanted a playoff berth. With Stillman, a Northeast Mississippi Community College signee, leading the pitchers and Wells Davis, a University of South Alabama signee at first base, leading the offense, Boyd knew he had playmakers. He also knew he had tradition. Visiting teams are massively intimidated when they take the field at New Hope. Even when the program had its struggles in the late 2000s, the mystique was still there.
New Hope is used to winning. The kids buy in and believe. If you believe in sports, that is half the battle.
When the season started, New Hope players most likely thought a third-straight state championship was a long shot. After all, playing baseball at that level is hard to maintain three years in a row.
As the wins mounted, the belief began to build. Even though Oxford won all three regular-season meetings, New Hope hasn't backed down from this challenge. Young and old players alike have talked about wanting to play Oxford.
It is a rivalry. Any rivalry is at its best when the stakes are at its highest.
New Hope wanted Oxford and, well now they have them. The real question is does Oxford want New Hope?
We start finding out tonight.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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