New Hope High School baseball coach Lee Boyd called his infield together to discuss bunt defense.
One pitch later and that conversation really didn’t matter anymore.
After Neshoba Central’s Brandon Clark led off the seventh inning with a double in a scoreless game, New Hope pitcher Josh Stillman threw to shortstop Sam Taylor for the season’s biggest pickoff.
In the 10th inning, Brody Stokes then put a wrap on the proceedings with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly lifting New Hope to a 1-0 win over Neshoba Central Thursday night in the opening game of a best-of-three series in the play-in round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs at Trojan Field. New Hope can clinch the series with a win a 6 tonight in Philadelphia. A third game, if needed, would be Saturday back at New Hope. On a night where defense and pitching stood tall, the pickoff was easily the biggest play of the game.
“We run that pickoff play all the time in practice,” Taylor said. “It has come through for us big-time in several games this season. We really caught them off guard. Credit to Coach Boyd for making a great call. It may have saved the game.”
Stillman admits fatigue began to kick in when the seventh inning started. Thirteen straight Rockets were retired before Stillman issued his only walk of the game with two outs in the sixth inning. Clark then mashed a 2-1 pitch to deep left center to give Neshoba Central its second runner in scoring position for the game to start the seventh inning.
“We made sure everybody knew what to do on the bunt,” Stillman said. “Coach picked up on something in the dugout. I really didn’t even realize the pick play had been signaled in at first. The adrenaline was pumping and I was so focused on getting the bunt defended properly. But it was a huge play in the game, no doubt.”
Clark and Stillman, both senior right-handers, matched one another pitch for pitch through nine innings.
Clark allowed three hits, with six strikeouts and two walks in nine innings of work. Clark retired the first six batters and the final 10 batters he faced.
Stillman finished the contest with a three-hit shutout, which included 11 strikeouts and a walk. Stillman retired the final eight batters on a 112-pitch night, after the streak of 13 straight earlier in the contest.
“Josh is our senior leader and he really put us on his back tonight,” Taylor said. “There is really no task too tall for him on the baseball field. Even though he was losing it there at the end, he was still battling.”
In a contest where the teams combined for eight hits, and each played error less ball, New Hope’s hitting star was junior catcher Will Godfrey. Godfrey had three hits but the biggest one only went about 40 feet.
In the 10th inning, Taylor started things with a double to the gap. After an intentional walk, Godfrey took and executed the bunt sign to perfection. After a near miss when the ball rolled foul at the last second, Godfrey proceeded to bunt the next pitch to the same location with the roll this time going in his team’s favor. A throw to first base was not in time and the bases were loaded.
Brody Stokes then lined a sacrifice fly to right field scoring the game-winner.
“Nothing was going to keep me out of this game because it was the playoffs,” said Godfrey, who had surgery Wednesday to repair a broken nose suffered in a game against Southaven. “I was really floating, just excited to be out there. I knew I had to get the bunt down because that is how we were going to win the game. It’s all about the little things. That is what a championship team does.”
New Hope has won back-to-back state championships with a combined 18 postseason wins in each of the past two seasons. Both of the previous New Hope teams played defense and pitched it on a high level. However, each also had a solid offensive punch. While this team can pitch and defend with its counterparts, the offense has stalled. New Hope beat West Point in its final regular season home game Monday with only three hits.
“It’s not to say that we aren’t working on it,” Boyd said. “The kids spent a couple of hours getting cuts in yesterday. This is one of the hardest working groups we have ever had here. I really think the hits are going to start falling for us. We know how to pitch it and defend it. Josh was a warrior tonight. We found a way to win. That is what we have done all year. We know we have offensive issues but we are working to get there.”
New Hope improved to 19-5 with Thursday’s win, while Neshoba Central fell to 13-10. The Trojans have now won nine times by shutout and have won 14 of their last 15 games overall.
“We have played in a lot of big games around here, I think that really helps give us an edge late in games,” Taylor said. “Defense has been good to us all year. We are really solid there. I think everybody would breathe a little easier if we could score runs earlier in games. However, we are in the playoffs and we keep winning. So that’s a good thing.”
Undefeated Oxford won all three region games against New Hope during the regular season. Eventually, the teams could meet in the North State championship for a second straight season.
“We really want Oxford again,” Godfrey said. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t be ready for Friday night and another chance to play Neshoba Central. They are very good. We saw that tonight. We just have a different mind-set and confidence level in the playoffs. Someone is going to have work hard to take the championship away from us.”
Follow Dispatch Sports Writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.