HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Joe Hartfield is in his 12th season as the head coach of Hattiesburg High Baseball, and the Tigers are district champions for the third straight year. Even with all the success, Hartfield is very fortunate to be out there coaching this season.
The sounds of baseball never get old, even for a 20-year veteran like Hartfield. He took over the baseball program the season following Hattiesburg's 2006 state championship. Surely, there was some pressure.
2016 marked Hattiesburg's first state title appearance in Hartfield's era. Although the Tigers fell short of another gold trophy, they headed into 2017 with optimism.
But, just four games into the season, Hartfield was forced to leave those sounds he loves. A trip to the doctor discovered spaces in Hartfield's spinal column that would require immediate surgery.
"I missed it a lot, but it especially hurt not being there for the guys. It's really something I couldn't avoid, but at the same time, it doesn't take away the feelings of letting guys down," said Hartfield.
"It was a difficult time, because coach Hartfield, he's a strong leader. He really plays a big part in Hattiesburg High baseball. So, him taking that surgery and leaving some days, it really took a toll on the team," said senior pitcher Dexter Jordan.
For two weeks, the Hattiesburg dugout felt empty without its head ball coach barking out orders. Hartfield made attempts to return earlier, but understood his health was the most important thing if he ever wanted to coach baseball again.
He eventually returned to Smoke Harrington Field and coached the Tigers to 12 wins in their last 15 games and a playoff run that ended in the South State finals.
It's no coincidence his return led to a rejuvenated Hattiesburg ball club.
"Him coming back and taking that leave. It shows how strong he is as a person. Showing how strong he is made us even stronger," said senior pitcher A.J. Stinson.
The baseball team is just as strong as the last two years. The Tigers' third straight region title gave them a first round bye in the class 5A playoffs.
Another state title run sounds good to Hattiesburg, but Hartfield is just glad to hear the sounds of baseball again.
"Looking forward to what the future holds now," said Hartfield.