When New Hope High School started its 2015 baseball season, senior Josh Stillman knew the Trojans had tradition.
He also felt like they had enough talent to help live up to that tradition.
With a lot of new faces in the starting lineup, New Hope was unable to repeat after winning back-to-back Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championships for the first time in program history.
However, the Trojans won the state over by playing with pride and determation. New Hope finished 25-7, including a runner-up finish in the North State championship round.
Helping lead the charge was Stillman, who sparkled at both second base and pitcher.
For his efforts as a star player and team leader, Stillman is being chosen today as The Dispatch’s All-Area Baseball Player of Year for a second straight season.
While pitching and playing second base, Stillman hit .250 with 25 base hits and 17 RBIs. On the mound, he was 8-3 with a 1.04 earned run average.
“Going into the season, there was not a lot expected of us,” Stillman said. “We did a lot better than people thought we would do. In the end, Oxford turned out to be way better than we thought they would be.
“Overall, we had a good year, considering the talent we had. We obviously lost a lot off the team from the year before. It’s so hard to win a championship. Then it’s harder to win two in a row. Then it’s even harder to try to win three in a row. We gave it our best shot.”
In his junior season, Stillman finished 8-0 with a 0.92 earned run average. He threw a complete-game, one-hitter in an 11-0 win over West Jones to win the state championship at Trustmark Park. Pitching then in the shadow of Taylor Stafford and J.C. Redden, Stillman knew what was needed to take his game to the next level as he blossomed in the role of staff ace a season later.
“Josh was one of our hardest workers,” New Hope sixth-year coach Lee Boyd said. “He knew the importance of senior leadership. He learned from so many really good players that went before him. This was a special team. It took some time for the team to build its own identity. Once that happened, they played really well.”
Lots of success
New Hope combined to win 59 games during its two state championships runs. The second state championship team won 18 straight games. This season, New Hope stood 5-4 before putting together an equally-compelling 19-game win streak.
“We were 5-4,” Stillman said. “We really don’t know where the season is going from there. We started doubting ourselves. However, we kept pushing. Eventually, we were able to pull it all together. We made things work out a whole lot better than it seemed like they were going to.”
During some of the dark early moments of the season, tradition was just about all the New Hope players had.
“We worked hard during the off-season,” Stillman said. “The seniors really took this season personal. We didn’t want to go out as a .500 team. You are measured against the (seven) other state championship teams around here, so you certainly want to hold your own. New Hope is a wininng program. That was the goal. We wanted to win it all again.”
Senior first baseman Wells Davis is headed to the University of South Alabama. He understood what Stillman brought the team on a nightly basis on the mound.
“We really counted on Josh,” Davis said. “You just really saw him grow up so much on the mound. He is going to battle for you and give you everything he has on the mound. It is fun to play behind a guy like that.”
In the end, an Oxford team which finished as undefeated state champions had too much fire-power. Oxford won all three regular-season meetings between the MHSAA Class 5A, Region 2 rivals. In the postseason, the teams met in the North State finals for a second straight season. Oxford gained revenge for its 2014 elimination.
Having a chance
However, New Hope did have its moments in the series.
In the series opener, New Hope and Oxford were tied 1-1 in the seventh inning when Stillman followed senior Brody Stokes to the mound in relief. The Trojans grabbed a 2-1 lead before Stillman was touched for a two-out, two-run walk-off home run by Ben Bianco of the Chargers an inning later.
“It was the hardest loss of my baseball career,” Stillman said. “I couldn’t sleep that night because you know one pitch may have cost your team the championship.”
Stilllman bounced back two days later by throwing a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory forcing the series to a third game. Will Godfrey won that game with a walk-off on his own in the New Hope seventh inning.
“Champions respond from adversity,” Boyd said. “When you saw Josh pitch the way he pitched in that game, you knew he was motivated.”
Oxford won the final game of the series with relative ease, 10-3.
While the season did not end at Trustmark Park, it did end with so many positives for a New Hope senior class thin in numbers but big in heart.
“(This season) was a lot different, there was more pressure,” Stillman said. “Even though the expecations were lower, the seniors had it on their shoulders. It always seem like the seniors have their worst years in their last year like that. I hate that we won’t be putting the same jerseys on again. We all gave it our best. Even though we lost in the end, we set a good tone for the future. This next group will work hard to get the program back on top.”
Overall, two state championships will help land Stillman and several of his teammates a great place in the New Hope history book.
“(The expereicne) has been awesome,” Stillman said. “The memories were great. My sophomore year, I was a part-time player so it was like watching a state championship through a side-view mirror. Last year, being a big part of it made it awesome. A lot of fun memories. You always miss the guys who are leaving. We missed those seniors this year. Hopefully, next year, they will look back and miss us.
“It was a lot of fun. Two state championships are nothing to be frowned upon. It had been 10 years since the program won a championship. You can’t stay on top foreever. But it felt really good to help bring it back.”
Now, a new chapter begins. Stillman will begin his baseball playing career at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Former New Hope pitcher Landon Boyd just finished his playing career there. Former Columbus High standout Trace Lee does return to the Tigers this season.
“It was really sad to get it over with,” Stillman said. “Time to move forward now. Get to college and start a new chapter. I am looking forward to the college baseball experience. I know each of us will go to our schools and work as hard as we can to be the best we can be. Hopefully, we will have a chance to link up later on down the road.”
Follow Dispatch Sports Writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.