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By Brandon Speck
Some dads make their sons mow the yard or rake leaves, maybe for a small allowance.
Baldwyn coach Jason McKay made Conner McKay shoot free throws. At 7 a.m. Before middle school. For no pay.
So neither were surprised when he calmly knocked down clutch free throws in the final minutes of the North semifinals, 18-of-20 in the state semifinals and again in the state championship.
“Without a doubt, he’s the biggest clutch player that I’ve coached in 22 years,” Jason McKay said.
McKay is the Daily Journal’s 2014 Boys Player of the Year. Alcorn Central’s John Wiley Works, Aberdeen’s Marcus Carouthers and West Point’s Juan Davis were also considered for the award.
McKay’s abilities have been evident since he was dribbling as a tyke in pregames. The coach’s kid is thankful for a coach who has taught him the way and now gives him leeway.
“He gives me a bunch of opportunities to do what I want to do,” Conner McKay said. “I’m thankful for a coach that lets me do that. The biggest thing is play defense.”
Jason preaches defense. Conner hears it at the gym and maybe at home, too.
Times can be tense in the four walls after some practices and games, but neither would trade the last two seasons, including a gold ball in 2013.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Jason said. “It’s up to the coach to try to make their players the best they can be. My son as a player has made me a better coach.”
After emerging as a freshman, McKay’s role changed some as a sophomore this season, from more of a facilitator last season, “play defense and not turn the ball over,” Conner says. He became more of a scorer this season – though he stops short of calling himself a scorer.
“I had to be more aggressive on offense,” he said. “I thought I did a decent job of that.”
An understatement. There may not be another point guard in the state a coach would want the ball in the hands of when it counts most. He hit nearly 92 percent from the line.
Though there was that double-dribble call in the Class 2A state tournament that so infamously turned a late tide and led to Marshall winning the trophy.
“Every day I get up and I think about it,” Conner says. “I’m over it, but there’s not a day I haven’t thought of it. I’ll be honest with you.”
In the McKay man cave, there is a photo Conner drew probably as a kindergartner. The photo – prior to the birth of sister Callie-Francis – has three stick figures drawn. It points out Conner, Jason and mom Kelly, but another line reads, “This is my ball.”
The day he drew that picture was likely also the last day he double dribbled.
By Brandon Speck
Booneville assistant coach Micah Moment showed up in shorts as he coached the first junior high game of the season.
He really had no other option.
Moment, along with assistant Brian Windham and head coach Michael Smith – Smith calls them a “coaching staff,” with no designation for head coach – had little time for fashion worries this season. The boys staff took over the girls program, too, on the fly in October.
It took a lot of sacrifices by players and coaches.
“More boys than girls,” Moment said. “For four or five years, we’ve done the same thing before every game.”
Now it was broken up, three guys going 100 different directions.
They had simultaneous practices that often overlapped with, well, everything. They ran back-and-forth from old gym to new, that night leaving Moment no time to change from practice to coaching gear.
The results? Booneville’s first-ever state title in girls basketball. The boys, meanwhile, finished a possession away from an unexpected fourth straight trip to the state tournament.
That, and the three managed to stay married. Moment celebrates a one-year anniversary today.
For their efforts, Smith is the 2014 Daily Journal Boys Coach of the Year, or as he would have it, staff of the year, after winning a girls title.
Baldwyn’s Jason McKay and New Site’s Larry Johnson were also considered for the award.
Smith said the boys felt that pressure to live up to the last three seasons, despite losing the first eight players off the bench after a Class 3A runner-up finish, including Georgia signee Kenny Paul Geno, and a potential starting point guard.
“We met with all those kids when we were struggling, just let them have an opportunity to say what they thought, and felt like it helped everybody get on the same page,” Smith said. “You can’t underestimate the pressure they were under.”
Adjustments were made by all. The guys on their own started leading their own devotions before the games, doing their part to make a tough situation work.
As good a job as they did with the girls, the boys shouldn’t have been in a position to make a regulation shot that would have sent them to the tournament.
“We weren’t expecting to make it to Friday night, by no means,” Windham said.
Truth. The potential was there to win five games, after no summer wins.
Booneville went 21-9. The lone returner, senior Jack Nichols, accepted a season-impacting move to the post and senior Joseph Caver scored 35 in the season-opener. Bonner Powell came around.
“Those three senior kids just finally said, ‘It’s ours.’ They took ownership of the team and it was huge,” Smith said.
BOONEVILLE – Class 3A fast pitch runs through Nettleton, while Mooreville is trying to regain that distinction. The rest of 3A North? Playing catchup.
Booneville beat Alcorn Central 15-5 in six innings on Friday afternoon to get a little bit closer to a playoff spot.
Atop Division 1-3A is playoff-bound Mooreville. Undefeated atop Division 4-3A is Nettleton. Neither is worried about postseason positions. Nettleton has three titles and six straight championship series appearances.
“It’s kind of, you’re on the outside looking in, you know talent-wise you can match up with them,” Booneville coach Jeremy Reece said. “It’s just a matter of getting there. Those teams have done it over time and have that tradition and that’s something we’re trying to get to.”
It was senior day for Booneville, the home finales for Annabeth Ford and Kaylee Cooper. Leftfielder Ford had a snow cone catch in the top of the fourth and started one of two double plays her team turned.
She said the goal is to get to the levels Mooreville and Nettleton have set, even if it means starting the process for her school and watching the results happen to future Lady Devils.
“That’s what I want. I want to get all the way up to playing big games and eventually going to state,” Ford said. “I want Booneville softball to have something special.”
On Friday, Booneville got past a rough, five-run third inning as winning pitcher Olivia Blansett battled a wet softball in a steady drizzle. After two scoreless, Alcorn Central sent 11 batters to the plate, three on walks and got RBI singles from Delanie Brown, Maddy Oaks and Michalia Finkle to tie the game at five.
The second of two Kayla Moore RBI singles put Booneville back ahead for good and the Lady Devils (7-15) scored six in the sixth for a mercy-rule win. Ali Martin tripled and Laura Horn, Baley Hankins and Chloe Eubank had RBI singles. Morgan Blythe’s two-run single ended it.
“The talent’s there to be successful,” second-year coach Reece said. “Now we’re just trying to develop it in the junior high level all the way up.”
By Brandon Speck
Smithville has clinched its division title, but that’s not the goal for the Lady Seminoles.
Smithville (17-6) still has the fresh taste of losing in last season’s Class 1A North finals against West Union and wants another taste of 2012’s state championship.
One key to that run is the meat of the lineup – 2,3 and 4 hitters Lane Kennedy, Breanna Edgeworth and Angel Guyton.
On a team hitting .396, Kennedy bats .500 with 31 RBI, seven doubles, four triples and a pair of home runs. Edgeworth is hitting .410 with 25 RBI, nine doubles and a pair of home runs. Guyton, a freshman among the two juniors in a trio one opposing coached called a “murderer’s row,” is batting .486 with a team-high 33 RBI and three home runs.
“They’re pretty salty. If we’ve got some runners on base, we can do some things right there,” Smithville coach Jeremy Duke said. “They’re hard to get through.”
There is balance, too. In the 9-spot is a speedy sophomore, Katie King. King is hitting .389.
Balance is helping alleviate the absence of leadoff hitter Billie Claire Goode, who’s been out for two weeks now and not expected back for at least another after an injury against Hamilton.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Edgeworth said. “It’s gonna happen, but we’ve had times, too, when we’re all on at the same time.”
Speed has helped, too. Kennedy is 9-of-9 in stolen bases. The team has stolen 41-of-43. Laken Armstrong, Guyton, Goode, Olivia Roberts, King, Macy McCain and Claire McNeese combine for a perfect 23-of-23.
Teams stand in the way, like West Union – the two could possibly meet in Round 2.
“I think we’re one of the ones in the state that can compete for it,” Duke said of a potential state run. “You have to get lucky here and there and sometimes the ball has to bounce your way. To say we’re going to, I’ve been there too many times to know it takes a lot of things going you way to have that happen.
“But I think we definitely have a chance for sure.”
By Brandon Speck
NETTLETON – Kaleigh Tackett was chasing foul balls when Nettleton’s string of six straight Class 3A fast pitch championship series began.
Now, with fellow seniors Lauren Baldwyn and MariAnna Young, Nettleton is seeking a seventh shot and a fourth title.
There are multiple keys to Nettleton’s success, but one underlying key goes unnoticed.
Tackett, like junior Harley Tucker, who is leading the team with a .500-plus batting average, weren’t only chasing foul balls and sitting on buckets so their older teammates had a spot on the dugout bench. Not even then old enough to drive, they were learning.
“It means a ton. I think there are a couple of things that happen when you get them that young,” Nettleton coach Dana Rhea said. “First of all, they learn what to expect, the expectations we as coaches have for our players. And second, the learn how things are done.”
One way things have been done is in the weight room. Nettleton has been a player in state powerlifting, just as it has in softball. Tucker won a gold medal in the April 5 state meet.
Weightlifting started before the school began competing in powerlifting. Then-superintendent James Malone got it going.
“He had a passion for girls’ athletics’ and saw weightlifting as an avenue for success,” Rhea said. “It started out as a weightlifting period.”
Success came in softball first, which led to the school jumping into the powerlifting business.
Tucker is the lone powerlifter on the team now, but at one time, it was the whole team blaring Metallica and pumping iron for a whole school period.
The softball team lifts one period a day in the offseason.
“As a coach, I saw the change after probably the first year they were in the weight room,” Rhea said. “You could see them getting stronger. The illegal bats had been thrown around for years, but nobody knows the work that’s been going on around here since 06-07 of just lifting every single day.”
By Brandon Speck
Booneville shortstop Andrew Lambert threw a ball that landed beside him and teammate Chase Calvery tripped over first base, turning a sure double into an RBI single.
That all came as North Pontotoc overcame its own comedy of errors – as well as an 8-0 hole – and beat Booneville 14-9 Tuesday to clinch Division 1-3A.
“Guys kept fighting and some good things happened for them,” North coach Chad Anthony said. “We’re real thankful for that victory.”
The Vikings scored 12 unanswered runs after Booneville took an 8-0 lead to the fourth. The game took 3 hours, 9 minutes. The teams combined for 30 hits, 17 for Booneville (13-9, 4-4).
Booneville had five errors, one as a ball off the bat of Miciah Heard went Bill Buckner-esque through the legs of third baseman Tyler Newby. Winning pitcher Caleb Todd scored to give North a 9-8 lead in the fifth.
The Vikings (18-3, 7-1) added three more runs in the inning, as Booneville went to its third pitcher, one as a ball was dropped in right field. Trey Jolly made it 12-8 lead when Lambert lost his grip as he was throwing a pick attempt back home.
“I was really excited about our offensive approach,” Booneville coach Bo Sandlin said. “Defensively, we just fell apart.”
North was the one auditioning for the blooper reel in the first three innings. After Lambert’s two-run single, Todd let a ball past him at short. Two scored.
After Todd replaced starter Josh Tutor, Booneville two-hitter Daniel Calvery saw his pop to right lost in the sun above Austin Bray. Two scored for an 8-0 lead.
In North’s comeback, Colby Graham, Jolly and Cole Loggins had three straight RBI doubles in an eight-run fourth. Twelve went to the plate and seven runs came with two out.
“Once we scored, that kind of started giving a little momentum,” Anthony said.
By Brandon Speck
TUPELO – The division is still Tupelo’s to win or lose, but Grenada has the Wave’s number. The Chargers beat Tupelo for the second time this season, 4-3 Friday to take the season series. Both were one-run games.
Tupelo (15-5, 5-1 Division 2-6A) can still clinch the division with a win in the Monday-Tuesday series with Hernando.
“Those guys play well against us,” Tupelo coach Gary Enis said. “They’ve put together good at-bats when they had to. We just didn’t hit tonight.”
Tupelo led 3-2 after the fourth inning. With two outs in the top of the fifth, Grenada got a single from Ethan Burke. Lavorious Redditt then lined a double off the left field wall. He took third on the throw and scored on an awry throw to third.
Tupelo managed only six hits off Grenada starter Caleb Morgan (3-2) and scored all three of its runs in the fourth inning. Down 2-0, Ty Wheeler and William Ikerd singled to load the bases. Woody Goss had an RBI bunt single and pinch hitter Jason Garrett reached when his hard grounder went through the legs of Chargers’ shortstop Will Jordan. Two scored. Carter Clayton flew out to right and left two stranded.
The Wave left two on in the second inning and Grenada (12-6, 4-4) turned a double play after Hudson Roy’s single in the third. Mickey Sesin stole second base in the first inning, but was stranded.
“We didn’t hit,” Enis said, “left runners on in the first and second innings, in scoring position. That changes the whole stage of the game if we get an early lead.”
Morgan, a sophomore, struck out nine. Drew Hurst (3-3) took the loss for Tupelo. Wave sophomore Jason Garrett came on with two down in the fifth and struck out four, the side in the seventh.
Grenada is in third place in the division.
“He pitched through some tough situations, I thought, just kept in there,” Grenada coach Jake Yarborough said of Morgan. “He kept throwing strikes, mixing up speeds. His changeup really worked well tonight.”
By Brandon Speck
Outfielder Harley Tucker is carrying a load for Nettleton’s Lady Tigers. After 14 games, she was hitting a team-high .486 with 18 RBIs. She has five doubles, six triples and a home run.
But the 5-foot-6 junior is shouldering a bigger load than people see on the field.
Tucker is fresh off a gold medal win in Saturday’s MHSAA state powerlifting meet. She finished third last year.
Nettleton coach Dana Rhea speaks highly of her for another accomplishment, her leadership.
“The most obvious thing I’ve seen is her attitude is just awesome,” said Rhea, whose team is 12-4. “She’s done a fine job stepping in and trying to be a leader for the younger ones.
“Her offense this year has been phenomenal and her defense has improved so much that you can really see the desire to be that leader.”
Tucker concurs. She says her growth as a player and as a lifter has been less about the game and more about learning to lead.
At one point, she was one of the younger ones, with the team since sixth grade, watching from the beginning the six-year run of state title series – three wins. She wasn’t just watching and wasn’t just learning how to play.
Pointing the way
“Leadership is the main thing. Being there since I was a manager, you learn from the older ones,” Tucker said. “I just would like to follow in the older one’s footsteps and keep winning state championships and making it there.”
At Mississippi Coliseum, she took first place with an 875-pound total. That number included a 375-pound squat, 150-pound bench and 350-pound deadlift. Only three lifters in Class II totaled more.
“I finally realized that I’m the one that actually has to step up and take the full responsibility of being a leader,” she said, “instead of having to follow.”
By Brandon Speck
Baldwyn superintendent of schools and District I executive committee president Ronnie Hill isn’t accusing the Mississippi High School Activities Association of purposely manipulating games in the state tournament, but he does say recent allegations may have given people that impression.
Hill believes steps need to be taken to reassure the public.
Four referees from at least two tournament games the last two seasons have told the Daily Journal they were told by the MHSAA to protect certain star players from foul calls.
The MHSAA has admitted sending people, including assistant director of athletics Robert Holloway, into the halftime room to speak to its officials, but says it does so to give direction – praise and correction.
MHSAA executive director Don Hinton and Holloway deny the allegations. One official took offense to the denial.
“Their comment of them not coming in there and not saying what they said, him saying it’s not true is a lie,” one referee said of Hinton. “It’s just a lie. Point blank, it’s a lie.”
Hill said it apparently is a common practice in Central and South Mississippi to give guidance at halftimes. It’s not in North Mississippi. That’s why, Hill said, he and three other District I executive committee members met with Hinton last week to discuss the matter. Two committee members from the South were also present at the meeting.
The executive committee has a regularly scheduled meeting today, where the topic, although not likely on the agenda, is expected to discussed.
“If you need to address officials and say ‘Guys, get this under control,’ do it,” Hill said. “But let’s eliminate the middle man and there’s no need to mention numbers.”
One of the middle men in question is Randy Reynolds, who doesn’t have an official title with the MHSAA. Hill said sending a third party to deliver a message is part of the problem.
Hill said mentioning specific players may be automatically causing referees to interpret the message as keeping a better eye on – protecting – individual players.
“According to the people who work at the association, that is not the intent,” Hill said. “I think, again, since we don’t go into dressing rooms (in the North) and people do go in and mention players’ names, they interpret that as intent. I think that’s the problem with it. I don’t think the association’s intent is to tamper with the game.
“I think we can eliminate the names and the numbers to where you don’t give the impression that you’re looking at a particular player.”
But the four referees who’ve spoken to the Daily Journal say there was no confusion on the message and clearly the intent is to protect star players. It’s clearly to keep stars in the game, words they say are very clear from Holloway and Reynolds.
“What’s been said, I’m not saying one person’s right and one person’s wrong and who’s not telling the truth,” Hill said. “I’m just saying that from this point forward, I think we can address what’s being said in there and correct players being identified by name and number.”
Hill didn’t go as far as saying the integrity of the MHSAA has been damaged, but it is on the line.
“That’s the perception, when people hear this and see this, that games are being tampered with,” he said.
“If talking to officials is something that has gone on for 30 years and is going to be continued, we can do that without saying the best player on the team or the number.”
By Brandon Speck
Falkner’s powerlifting team is growing, by the year.
Sophomores Dillon Davis (308-pound class) and Omar Madrigal (114) are the latest examples, both winning gold in Saturday’s MHSAA state meet.
Davis waited a year to avenge a second-place finish as a freshman.
“It means a lot,” Davis said. “To have that state medal, I’ve worked three years to get it and finally achieved it. It’s a good feeling.”
Madrigal won his class with a 560-pound total. Davis blew everyone out of the water with a total of 1,460 pounds, the second-highest total in 1A and 320 pounds more than second-place finisher Martin Latiker of McAdams.
The one total better came from good friend, Smithville senior Tanner Fears. Fears totaled 1,520 pounds, including a 605-pound deadlift, making the Class 1A North Mississippi lifters the two strongest in the class.
“We thought he might (win),” said Falkner coach Cory Armstrong. “And the guy who beat him last year was returning. He knew he had his work cut out for him and never shorted in the weight room. Every time he goes in, he goes for a purpose. That purpose was Saturday. It’s good to see kids reach their goals. It took him a year to get it.”
Falkner’s team was revived three years ago by now-Amory football coach Ben Ashley. The Eagles had one gold medal winner each of the first two years, two this season. Now they’re making plans for a run at a state championship in 12 months.
At this rate, that’s not out of reach. But like Davis, Falkner may not be satisfied until it happens.
Davis squatted 600 pounds, benched 330 and had a 530-pound deadlift.
“I was setting my goal to win,” he said. “The meet didn’t turn out like I wanted. I wanted to squat 610. I did, but he said I didn’t get low enough. I wanted to bench a little higher, but I’m happy with what I had in deadlift.”
6A: Otis Wilson, Tupelo, 165.
5A: William Paine, Oxford, 220.
4A: Patrick Newell, Pontotoc, 181; Joseph Flanigan, Tishomingo County, 198; Colton Bramlett, Pontotoc, 220; Michael Loyd, Amory, 242; Steven Cook, Lafayette, 275; John Chances, Lafayette, 308; Bailey Wray, Pontotoc, super heavyweight.
3A: Logan Morton, Kossuth, 114; Hunter Switcher, Kossuth, 132; Tyler Lindsey, South Pontotoc, 275; Kenyana Heard, North Pontotoc, 308.
2A: Brandon Taylor, 123, East Union; Brett Rakestraw, East Union, 132; J.R. Ramirez, Bruce, 148; Latrell Marks, Bruce, 165; Jamar Brown, Bruce, 198; Hunter Wigington, East Union, 242; Bryan Wages, East Union, 308.
1A: Omar Madrigal, Falkner, 114; Tanner Fears, Smithville, 242; Dillon Davis, Falkner, 308.
II: Molly Sorto, Pontotoc, 132; Qualeah Ezell, Itawamba AHS, 148; Harley Tucker, Nettleton, 181.
I: Laquianna Norris, Calhoun City, 114; Alicia Feliciano, Calhoun City, 123; Landryn Stoddardm, Calhoun City,132; Kiara McKissick, Calhoun City, 165; Courtney Norman, Calhoun City, 220; Jasmine Flemons, Bruce, 220-plus.