Photo/Zac Chamblee

Joe Hartfield has always leaned on his family to get him through the tough times. That includes the pain of often coming up short deep in the playoffs and even serious health issues.  

So when Hartfield’s Hattiesburg Tigers captured the school’s first state baseball title in nearly a decade two weeks ago, the 46-year-old made a beeline for his number one supporters. After nearly 30 years as a head coach, Hartfield had finally won his first state championship. Leaving his family out of the celebration was not an option. 

“My wife, son and daughter, we all hugged and we all had tears in our eyes,” recalled Hartfield. “I’m getting emotional right now thinking about it. But for 20-something years, they went through these highs and lows with me. They went through this too, the pain and the agony.”

For leading Hattiesburg to a Class 5A State Championship, Hartfield has been named our Sports601 Hattiesburg-Area Baseball Coach of the Year. 

“It means a lot to me,” Hartfield said of the honor. “But I also know that I would not be getting this honor without very good players and a lot of support from our parents, school district and especially my coaches.”

Finally, one of Hartfield’s teams broke through. It was a group that burst onto the scene as sophomores in 2016, putting the Class 5A scene on notice for years to come. After coming up short then and the year after, Hattiesburg put together an unforgettable 2018 season, which culminated with the Tigers hoisting the Gold Glove trophy for the first time since 2006. 

Nearly two weeks later, with graduation having come and gone, most of the team has moved on to the next phase of the championship process. Hartfield, on the other hand, is still left pinching himself on occasion. 

“I think the only thing they’re worried about is their state championship rings and what they’re going to look like, and that’s a good thing,” said Hartfield with a laugh. “I put the trophy on my night stand the first couple of nights, because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a dream.”

Having coming up short deep in the postseason six times at Hattiesburg and Lumberton, Hartfield’s prospective nickname among his assistant coaches was “Buffalo Bill”. Now, that nickname no longer fits. But the past is not forgotten. On the bus ride back to Hattiesburg, with the championship trophy nestled by his side, Hartfield thought about some of his former teams that would’ve loved to been the first. 

“I actually had a lot those guys text me and call me to congratulate me. We even have a text group with the Lumberton guys that I’m in. It was eight seniors that graduated one of my years that we went to state. They’re still a very special group to me. I look back a lot on the past and all the accomplishments we had, and that we came up just short a few times.”

Still, in the face of that defeat and serious ailments, Hartfield persevered and continued to put together championship caliber teams. Last season, in which the Tigers made it all the way to South State, Hartfield missed time after undergoing spinal surgery. His most recent and more serious obstacle came shortly after the 2017 season, when doctors discovered he was suffering from a blood disease. 

Now, once a week, Hartfield goes to a cancer center in Hattiesburg to receive infusions. He says the spinal surgery, the more documented issue he’s faced, is nothing compared to what he’s going through now. 

“I’m sick a lot and in a lot of pain quite often. It’s hit and miss,” said Hartfield. “Sometimes I feel good. But at the same time, it’s affecting my body, my functions and my body temperature. There’s a lot of numbness in my body. I’ve lost feeling in my feet, toes and fingers. It’s a very difficult thing to go through.”

Truth be told, Hartfield is not sure whether he’ll ever coach again. He, along with his wife and doctor, hope to get an answer on that in the next half year. If push comes to shove and his time in a dugout or coaching box is over, Hartfield takes solace in knowing that the championship trophy which once avoided him at all costs now sits on his night stand. 

“I’ve accomplished everything I can as a high school coach, finally,” added Hartfield. “A lot of people said it could not be done at Hattiesburg again. We’re an inner-city school. No other inner-city school in the state of Mississippi and nowhere else that I know of plays baseball at this high of a level.”