Coach of the Year: Hartfield pushes all the right buttons in title run

By CAMAL PETRO,

The Buffalo Bills did something no other NFL franchise has ever done by advancing to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s. However, they failed to win the big game all four times, and while Hattiesburg coach Joe Hartfield didn’t make consecutive trips to the State Championship, he was 0-for-3 in his career.

Hattiesburg’s run to the state championship in 2018 was his second trip as the Tigers’ head coach and the fourth of his career, and he and his team were going to make sure the “Buffalo Bill” nickname didn’t stick with him. Behind Hartfield’s leadership, the Tigers swept Lewisburg to claim the first state title at the school since 2006.

“After 20-something years of chasing that thing and coming so close six different times, it just seemed like it might have been out of reach mentally,” Hartfield said. “These players, they played so well. They never gave up throughout the playoffs, and they had plenty of opportunities to do that.

“Of course, the coaching staff, they coached their tails off during that thing, too. It was good to get it, for sure.”

The last win of 2018 was almost too easy, completing the sweep in a 10-run-rule fashion.

“When I got home, I put the trophy on my nightstand just to make sure it was real when I woke up,” Hartfield said. “I looked at my wife and I asked her, ‘Do I look different?’ She gave me one of those wife sarcastic looks, but she was happy for me.”

As the head coach, Hartfield has to make adjustments throughout the season, and he pushed all of the right buttons throughout the 2018 campaign. From managing high-profile athletes to subbing underclassmen in to pinch run or pinch hit, it always seemed Hartfield and his coaches knew what to do.

One big decision came in the third-round of the 5A playoffs, though. Trailing 1-0 in the series and facing elimination, Hartfield made a decision to put all of his seniors in the lineup, which included moving senior Jay Reedy to the leadoff spot. Sophomore Caleb Tart, the team’s starting shortstop, was the only player who wasn’t a senior, and Hattiesburg pulled off a come-from-behind win to force the Game 3. Hattiesburg would eventually win that to move on to the 5A South State round.

“I really left it up to the seniors,” he said. “I put every senior in the lineup when we lost Game 1 to South Jones, and I told them, ‘If we lose from this point on, it’s going to be you losing or you winning, but I’m going to leave it up to you to make sure we’re successful,’ and they took the bull by the horns and did a great job.”

Another way Hartfield helped his team prepare for a championship run was make a difficult schedule. Hattiesburg played George County, which played for the 6A State Championship, it played the eventual 3A State Champion St. Andrews, the Tigers played three 6A playoff teams to finish off the season and they traveled to the North Carolina to play some of the best teams in the country in the National High School Invitational.

The Tigers picked up 10 losses this season, which made for a not-so-pleasing looking record, but it was worth it to Hartfield.

“We did that to expose our weakness,” he said. “We knew that playing those teams would expose things we needed to work on, make personnel chances, and we did those things. We couldn’t turn a double play early in the year, and all of the sudden, we’re turning double plays in our sleep.”

It might not have looked perfect at times, and the pressure to win the championship this season was definitely there, but Hartfield, his assistants and the players kept righting the ship en route to Pearl.

“It was probably the most pressure I’ve ever experienced as a coach,” Hartfield said. “The best teams don’t always win, the most talented teams don’t always win. I knew we were the best team this year and I knew we were probably the most talented team.”