April 20, 2017 10:13:42 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
New Hope High School baseball coach Lee Boyd knows what a state championship team looks like.
Boyd has both played on and coached state title squads.
Boyd feels like the work of a state championship team takes nine months of relentless effort and a lot of self-motivation.
This season, the Trojans are making up for lost time.
"In the early part of the season, the extra effort was not there," Boyd said. "I don't think enough players were committed to doing all the extra things needed to win a championship. Fortunately, everything has picked up of late. We are playing well. The main thing is getting into the playoffs. Once you are in, everybody has a shot."
New Hope (15-11) will begin its postseason run at 6:30 p.m. Friday when it plays host to Lake Cormorant (12-15) in Game 1 of a best-of-three first-round Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 5A playoff series.
The series will resume at 2 p.m. Saturday at Lake Cormorant. A Game 3 would be at 6:30 p.m. Monday at New Hope.
Since it didn't receive a first-round bye, New Hope needs to win five series (10 total victories) to capture a state championship.
"The goal was to win the region, but since we didn't do that, we really worked hard on finishing second," New Hope senior Carson Forrester said. "It is important to have home-field advantage in every round you can get it. This team really has a good attitude. We know the challenge, but we are playing with a lot of confidence."
New Hope or Oxford has won the last eight Class 5A, Region 2 championships. Both teams also have dominated in the state championship series. New Hope won the 2013 and 2014 state championships, while Oxford won the 2015 and 2016 titles. Oxford beat New Hope in the North State finals in 2015.
Oxford has continued the dominance this season. The Chargers, have been ranked nationally, breezed to the region title with an 8-1 record. In the third regular-season meeting, New Hope snapped a six-game losing streak in the series with an 8-5 victory at home.
"That win really changed our entire season," New Hope senior Koby Harcrow said. "Oxford is the favorite to win the championship. When you show you can beat the favorite, it makes you feel good. It was a big lift. It was like a wakeup call we needed to work hard the next month to see how far we can go."
Boyd had been waiting on that call.
"We really have a phenomenal group of kids," Boyd said. "They play the game the right way. When you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. Sometimes you can rely on your tradition and it helps you play a little better than you really are. This season, it just took a while to get started. It took a few extra weeks for everybody to throw on that switch.
"In the last month, we have had the kids getting the extra cuts in the batting cage. They have been down here on their own time, on Sundays, too, doing all of those extra little things you need to do. Baseball is all about mental and physical preparation. The teams in the past have done so much to put themselves in a position to be successful. This year's team is buying into that."
New Hope has been looking for offensive consistency throughout the season. The Trojans enter the postseason with .279 team batting average. They averaging 5.8 runs per game. Thomas Stevens leads the team with a .473 average. Tyler Murphy (.398) is the only other starter at .300 or better.
By comparison the 2015 state championship squad hit .310 and averaged 7.5 runs per game. Even in the victory against Oxford, New Hope scored eight runs in the fifth inning to rally.
While hits with runners in scoring position have been elusive for the most part, signs of improvement have been taking place.
The last two weeks also included seven-run innings in victories against South Panola and region rival Saltillo. New Hope beat Saltillo twice in the last two weeks to finish region play at 6-3.
"Hitting is contagious, and we are finally putting some things together," Stevens said. "Earlier in the year we were having one- and two-run innings. Here of late, we have been able to have the big inning. A lot of it is mental. You have to go to the plate with confidence. You can tell we have some guys with more confidence."
New Hope won its first five games before losing seven of the next nine. For the season, the Trojans have lost by a run five times and two runs twice.
Strong pitching kept the Trojans afloat during those tough times. New Hope enters postseason with a 2.12 earned run average. Peyton Buckner leads the way with a 7-1 record and 1.25 ERA.
"In the playoffs, you have to play a complete game," Boyd said. "You have to pitch it, defend it, and find a way to score runs. We have pitched it well throughout the season. We have held our own from a defensive standpoint. The hitting is getting there at the right time. The kids battled through some adversity this season and grew from it. I think everybody is excited about the opportunity ahead."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter