May 16, 2015 11:19:56 PM
OXFORD -- Through two games in their Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State championship series, the New Hope and Oxford high school baseball teams traded thrilling wins, alternating walk-off victories.
First, the Chargers celebrated thanks to a game-winning, two-run home run by Ben Bianco for a 3-2 win in Game 1 Tuesday night. On Thursday night, the Trojans countered with a game-winner of their own, a solo home run by junior catcher Will Godfrey that gave new Hope a 1-0 win and pushed the series to a Game 3.
There wasn't a walk-off in the finale.
Stepping to the plate with his team nursing a one-run lead in the fourth inning, Oxford catcher Jack McClure unloaded a three-run home run, a no-doubter to right field that gave the Chargers separation on the way to a 10-3 win that clinched a trip to the Class 5A state championship series and ended New Hope's two-year reign on top.
"I'm as proud of this team as I've ever been," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "Coming into the year, we were replacing our starting lineup. We started 5-4, Oxford drilled us a couple of times. People said this was our rebuilding year, but our kids didn't listen. They fought their hearts out, pushed a great team to the brink. There's nothing to hang our heads about after this game."
Oxford pitcher Jason Barber, who entered the game in relief with one out in the first, pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing one run to earn his second win of the series. He added a solo home run in the fifth for the Chargers, who will face South State champion George County for the state title in a series that will start Tuesday.
The loss ends New Hope's season at 25-7. Five of the losses were to Oxford.
Payton Lane, who had two hits and pitched four innings for the Trojans, summed up New Hope's feelings after the loss.
"I love this team," Lane said. "We knew that was the best team in the state over there. We got within one strike the other night of beating them, and we would have won this series. It didn't go our way, but we battled. That's all you can ask."
The Trojans jumped all over the Chargers early. Against starting pitcher Dalton Markle, a senior who entered at 5-0 and a 1.31 ERA, New Hope came out aggressive in the first. After a groundout, the next five Trojans all reached base, chasing Markle after one-third of an inning. Josh Stillman started the rally by drawing a four-pitch walk. First baseman Wells Davis followed with a single to right field. When outfielder Houston Roth allowed the ball to roll under his glove and then fired a throw into the Oxford dugout, Stillman scored on a dead ball to give New Hope a 1-0 lead.
Davis pushed the lead to 2-0 when he scored on a double by Lane, who one-hopped the center-field wall. After hitting designated hitter Thomas Stevens, Markle gave way to Barber, who escaped further harm.
The inning ended when third baseman Ben Bianco made a diving stop to snag a grounder by Tyler Jones and start a 5-3 double play.
"We knew their plan was to see what they could get out of (Markle) before going to Barber," Boyd said. "We knew we wanted to jump on them early, get Markle out and see how much damage we could do. That play by Bianco, that was big-time. If that ball gets through, it's 4-0, maybe 5-0. Then it's a completely different game. But he made the play, and that's what great teams do."
New Hope's 2-0 cushion after one inning was the first lead of more than one run for either team in the series, a stretch that covered 15 innings.
The lead didn't last long.
Sophomore pitcher Peyton Buckner, 4-0 with a 0.25 ERA when the night started, faced three hitters in the bottom of the first, and he walked all three. That loaded the bases with no outs for the Chargers, who received a sacrifice fly from sophomore
Ben Bianco and an RBI double from Roth to tie the game. Lane, who inherited the bases-loaded jam with no outs, limited the damage to two runs and left the teams tied after one inning.
"They bounced right back," Boyd said. "It would have been big for us to keep the lead there, but it didn't happen."
New Hope threatened in the top of the second, sending a runner to third base with one out. JD Earhart, the No. 9 hitter, reached on a single to right field then advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Barber. But Oxford's ace fanned Josh Stillman for the second out, then coaxed a groundout by Davis to end the inning. Davis hit the ball sharply, but second baseman Drew Bianco was playing in shallow right field due to a defensive shift, which allowed him to cut off the line drive and get Davis at first.
In the bottom of the inning, Oxford took its first lead. Freshman Drew Bianco singled to right field and stole second base. He scored on a sacrifice fly by center fielder Matthew Guyton. It was the first run allowed by Lane, and it gave Oxford a 3-2 lead.
The big blow came in the fourth, when McClure made his mark. After walking on four pitches in his first two at-bats, Oxford's No. 3 hitter worked a 1-0 count against Lane with two runners on base. The third pitch was a fastball down the middle, and McClure drove it deep over the right-field wall. The ball also flew over a second fence that separates Edwin Moak Field from the surrounding neighborhood.
"That deflated us," Boyd said. "It's a 3-2 game, we are battling. And he just had a huge hit. Great players do that. That was a big one."
The three-run home run gave Oxford its first multi-run lead of the entire series. McClure finished with two hits, and he reached base in all four plate appearances.
"I tried to challenge him, and he made a great swing on it," Lane said. "I thought it was a pretty good pitch, but he hit it a long way."
McClure's home run was the first major damage against Lane, who pitched well in relief of Buckner. Lane held Oxford to one run through 3 2/3 before McClure's blast. He finished his night after yielding four runs in four innings.
After Barber drilled a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth, the Chargers struck for three more in the sixth. Roth's second RBI double made it 8-2 and chased reliever Brody Stokes, who allowed three runs in 1 1/3 innings. Barber finished Oxford's scoring with a two-run single to left.
The Trojans broke through against Barber in the top of the seventh, as Jones ripped an RBI single to score Lane, who walked. The score was the first earned run given up by Barber in the series and the season. Barber finished the series with 14 1/3 innings pitched, allowing one run. On Saturday night, he gave up four hits and struck out four.
"That guy is a warrior," Boyd said. "We knew he was a great pitcher. But to come out and perform like that three days after pitching a complete game? You tip your hat to a kid like that."
Also tipping his cap was Oxford coach Chris Baughman, as he showed respect to the Trojans.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy because that's New Hope over there and these are the playoffs," Baughman said. "They go to another level in the playoffs. That's one of the best programs in the state, and this was a great series between two rivals."
New Hope had eight hits. Lane, Jones, and Godfrey had two, while Lane and Jones had RBIs.
For Oxford, Barber was 2-for-4 with three RBIs. McClure also had three RBIs.
The win ended a series that was in doubt for nearly three games. The loss ended New Hope's chances of a three-peat. New Hope reached the North State title series for the fourth-consecutive year.
"What this team has accomplished, it's amazing," Boyd said. "I wouldn't trade these kids for anything. Everybody wrote us off, but here we were."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
3. MHSAA delays start of fall sports by two weeks HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS