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John L. Pitts "could have been an actor, but I wound up here," as Sports Editor at the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal | Djournal.com

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JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

The first rule of successful entertainment is to always leave the crowd wanting more.

It worked for Elvis and for Shakespeare. Why should it be any different for college baseball?

When it comes to the rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, fans can’t wait for the next episode.

The Rebels and Bulldogs have played four times this season, each winning twice. Ole Miss took two of the three that count in the SEC standings, two weeks ago in Starkville. MSU won the Governor’s Cup rematch on Tuesday night in Pearl.

With four SEC weekends remaining, the teams have identical 10-8 league records. Both are well-ranked in all the various college polls that are floating about.

But the really dazzling numbers are the attendance counts for the four games – almost 48,000. MSU set a Friday night record (13,224), an NCAA on-campus record (15,586) for the Saturday game and a record (39,181) for an on-campus series.

Naturally, Tuesday night’s game set another record, packing 8,496 into Trustmark Park.

What a golden age for college baseball in the state! Mississippi State’s trip to the College World Series seems to have kicked regional interest up another notch or two, and it was pretty high to begin with.

MSU (8,328) trails only LSU (10,746) in average national attendance, with Ole Miss (7,743) fourth. Southern Miss (2,863) is 18th on the list.

College baseball is still regarded as a bit of a curiosity in some parts of the country. Here’s hoping the SEC Network can spread the good news to all corners of the nation in 2015.

In the meantime, what we need is at least one more game between the state rivals this season. It might happen in the SEC tournament, but what would be more delicious is a rematch in the NCAA tourney. That would just about have to be in the College World Series, although a super regional matchup with a trip to Omaha at stake would be epic.

Random thoughts

• I half expected Rick Stansbury’s name to come up in connection with the Manchester United soccer coaching vacancy.

• I remember the first Earth Day. Don’t let anybody fool you, kids, the environment is much better now.

• So help me, I thought Chumbawumba was running for major of Jackson. I love those guys.

• Overheard in our office: “Turkey bacon? Turkeys don’t have bacon!”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @JohnLPitts

A sea of runners waits to start the Boston Marathon on Monday morning. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

A sea of runners waits to start the Boston Marathon on Monday morning. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

By John L. Pitts

Daily Journal

The Northeast Mississippi runners in Monday’s Boston Marathon felt a spectrum of emotions during the 26.2-mile race.

But more than anything, they were moved by the outpouring of support from the public that lined the race route.

“The crowd was amazing – people were everywhere,” said Jane Shettles, 41, from Belden. She was the top female finisher from the state, 4,661st overall in 3:12:26.

“It was a very emotional day for me but very fun,” Shettles said. “When I crossed the finish line it really hit me. An amazing feeling.”

New Albany’s Heather Duley met a flight attendant in her hotel who had rescheduled her trip just to be in town to see the race. “She didn’t know any runners, she just wanted to cheer for all of them,” Duley said. “She just wanted to be a part of it.”

‘Amazing’ support

Duley, 37, finished in 3:35:43. “It was a hot, hot, brutal day, but I survived,” she said. “The crowd support was amazing.”

The top men’s finisher from the Journal area, as he was last year, was Bret Beauchamp, 39, from Oxford. He was 4,404th overall in 3:11.20.

The top finisher from the state was Florence’s Martin Miles Jr., 35, 1,397th overall in 2:54:20.

New Albany’s Roger McMillin, 68, who was near the finish line when the bombs went off last year, finished Monday in 4:28:55.

“The scene along the course was phenomenal,” he said. “I heard there were maybe a million people out there, the course was just lined with folks cheering and making you feel really good.”

Veteran Corinth runner Kenneth Williams, 72, competing in his “lucky 13th” Boston race, finished in 4:44:22. He was still on the course when the bombs went off last year.

Cancer survivor Reed Nunnelee, 29, of Brandon – son of U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee and a former Tupelo resident – finished 6,440th overall in 3:19:51.

john.pitts@journalinc.com

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AREA RUNNERS

Men

(With overall finish)

4,404, Bret Beauchamp, 39, Oxford, 3:11:20

21,687, Roger McMillin, 68, New Albany, 4:28:55.

27,760, Haywood Harrell, 66, Corinth, 5:06:45

25,374, Kenneth Williams, 72, Corinth, 4:44:22

Women

(With overall and gender finish)

13,757 (4,433), Amy Ballard, 37, Saltillo, 3:44:33

11,031 (2,941), Heather Duley, 37, New Albany, 3:35:43.

12,067 (3,492), Bridgett Jolly, 39, Tupelo, 3:38:54

15,342 (5,353), Lynn O’Neal, 50, Fulton, 3:50:11

14,125 (4.648), Esther Sanders, 44, Belden, 3:45:46

4,661 (455), Jane Shettles, 41, Belden, 3:12:26

23,989 (10,184), Charity Gordon, 42, Amory, 4:33:48

BOSTON MARATHON ROUTEBy John L. Pitts

Daily Journal

Kenneth Williams has returned to Boston to “finish the job.” Heather Duley is there to make some new, happier memories. Roger McMillan gave up on his hopes to run this year, only to find a surprising route to the starting line.

There will be a dozen runners from Northeast Mississippi in the field for Monday’s Boston Marathon, A year after the bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds more, there are deeply personal reasons that have driven them to be there.

Williams, 72, is a veteran marathoner from Corinth. “This will be my ‘Lucky 13th” race in Boston,” he said. He was about three-quarters of a mile from the finish when the first bomb exploded.

“It’s extremely important that I get back up here and finish the job,” Williams said Friday from Boston. “I never wavered from that, from the time that I was standing in the middle of the street after the bombs went off. I knew I was coming back. I can’t stress how important it was to be back here.”

New Albany’s Heather Duley, 37, said she had intended on last year’s race being a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She finished in 3:42:20 – about a half-hour before the bombs went off.

Duley was about a block away, waiting on a friend, Saltillo’s Roan Johnson, who was among the thousands unable to finish.

“I really planned on going last year and just doing that one time,” Duley said Friday from Memphis, where she was waiting on her flight. “All of my memories of Boston are all the good things, overshadowed by the sound of sirens and armed guards outside our hotel.

“I don’t want that to be my only memories of Boston. Really, it just made me mad. I know they were terrorists and weren’t targeting runners, but it felt like it. I think we all are trying to make a statement – ‘You’re not going to win.’”

Like Williams, Johnson will also be in the field Monday, aiming to finish the race she started a year ago.

New Albany’s Roger McMillan, 68, was 100 yards from the finish line when the first bomb went off. “Everything descended into chaos,” he said. “I can remember the elation I felt to be so close to the finish, then it was like the whole world turned upside down.”

After a delay, McMillan crossed the finish line – about 10 seconds too late to automatically requalify for this year’s race.

He eventually found an unconventional path back to Boston, as one of the winners of an essay contest that offered race berths.

“I had given up on going back … that was an amazing thing,” he said. “The morning after, I had set my sights on getting back. Walking around outside, with the empty streets, I told myself, ‘It’s got to end better than this.’ ”

McMillan picked up his race number Saturday morning. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of energy and no worry or apprehension,” he said. “Everybody’s glad to be back.”

Monday’s race is the 118th running of the Boston Marathon. The field has been limited in recent years to 27,000 but has been expanded to 36,000 this year, in part ot accommodate the thousands of runners who were unable to complete last year’s race.

john.pitts@journalinc.com

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

It’s peculiar that the main topic of conversation after this year’s MHSAA basketball tournament is about referees not blowing their whistles when maybe they should have.

After all, the biggest game-changer in Jackson was a whistle that should not have been blown – the “phantom” double-dribble call late in Baldwyn’s loss to S.V. Marshall in the Class 2A championship game.

But Northeast Mississippi folks had barely gotten home when the whispers began that something else peculiar had gone on at the tourney.

And on April 5, the Daily Journal published the first story suggesting that some referees had been asked to hold off calling fouls on one or more of the state’s top players.

MHSAA executive director Don Hinton flatly denied it.

At this point, the reality of the situation is more complex. And my gut feeling is that we’re just at halftime of this story, so to speak.

At issue are halftime conversations between game referees and one or more people speaking for the MHSAA. Short version of what the referees thought they heard: “Hey, people paid good money to see these stars. Don’t foul them out if you can help it.”

Further reporting by our Brandon Speck found referees who were given the same spiel at the 2013 tourney. For all we know, this has gone on for years.

The most benign explanation was offered by Baldwyn superintendent of schools Ronnie Hill – halftime chats with the refs are routine in other parts of the state but not routine with the officials in the north. Perhaps the message delivered in Jackson was taken the wrong way.

Said Hill: “I don’t think the association’s intent is to tamper with the game.”

But this kind of story erodes confidence in the process. If you can accept a universe where refs are pushed to swallow their whistles in some situations, it’s not a big leap of logic to thinking the refs are blowing their whistles against your team.

For the integrity of the process, the MHSAA has to reassure the public that everything is on the up-and-up. That needs to start at the top.

Random thoughts

• This column usually appears on Wednesdays, but that’s often a very busy day for sports news. We’re going to try it out here on Thursdays for a while instead.

• My wife, describing a particular garment to me: “It’s a racer back.” Me: “Wait, it’s from Arkansas?”

• The NCAA’s new “unlimited meals and snacks” plan is going to impose an undue burden on college athletic budgets in Colorado and Washington. Munchies!

• Three saddest words I can think of in sports: “Memphis spring game.”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

Whenever the subject turns to basketball coaches, whether in college or the pros, someone can always be counted on to say, “Anybody can win if they have the best players.”

I’m not so sure.

The value of good coaching will be on display this weekend at the Final Four, and Exhibit A is Kentucky.

This is the same Wildcats team that, in a short span of days just a few weeks ago, lost at home to a fair Arkansas team and then on the road against a bad South Carolina team. No one took them seriously as a national title contender at that point.

The talent was there, no doubt, but it took the firm hand of coaching to salvage the Wildcats’ season. John Calipari found a way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, with dramatic results.

Failure has a way of focusing the mind and leaving you open to better solutions.

A big part of that isn’t about X’s and O’s, but about egos. That’s the part we civilians often underestimate.

Phil Jackson won all those NBA rings with the Bulls and Lakers because he had some great players, of course, but also a roster of others who embraced their roles.

The team with the best record in the pros right now, San Antonio, is a textbook example of a team where everyone understands their jobs.

That quality also seems to distinguish all four of the Final Four teams. Florida has veteran grit and a ferocious commitment to defense; Connecticut has one great player and a roster that complements his skills; Wisconsin is 100 percent committed to a patient offensive attack.

The X factor in all this is Kentucky. Do the Wildcats, even now, know how good they can be? We’ll all see on Saturday if they’re ready to make the next step.

Random thoughts

• Overhead on the Lee County scanner last weekend: Woman wants help with an unruly 5-year-old. Response: “Dispatch, there’s nothing we can do with a 5-year-old.” Not the first time I’ve heard a call like that.

• I’m more convinced than ever that the SEC made a mistake not inviting Louisville to join in its last expansion. What a great athletic program. Not too late to go to 16, invite them and either Florida State or Clemson.

• NCAA basketball officials need a “decision clock” on reviewing TV replays. Give them 45 seconds and that’s it.

• The NBA is going to retaliate against the NFL’s no-dunk policy by outlawing all end-zone celebrations.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

As much fun as it is for folks to gloat about the success of the SEC in the NCAA men’s tournament, I think Bruce Pearl’s return means more.

Auburn’s hiring of the former Tennessee coach works on several levels, none more important than the fact that the guy is a proven winner at this level.

Pearl won a (Division II) national championship at Southern Indiana, then led Milwaukee and Tennessee to Sweet 16 appearances.

Most strikingly, he’s won 74 percent of his conference games along the way – a good measure of success against teams with similar situations.

Contrast Pearl with some SEC hires where coaches won at one level but struggled after stepping up. I think of Stan Heath, who led Kent State to 30 wins and the Elite Eight in his only season there, then stumbled through stops at Arkansas and South Florida.

Pearl replaces a coach, Tony Barbee, who had some success at UTEP before finding it’s a lot harder to hit the pitching in the big leagues.

Auburn’s move quickly turned up the heat on state rival Alabama, which decided to bring back head coach Anthony Grant after the worst (13-19) of his five seasons in Tuscaloosa.

And it sends a signal that Auburn, which hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2003, is prepared to be a serious player again.

For the SEC, better coaches will equal better basketball.

Pearl is a larger-than-life character, which plays well on the national stage. But everywhere he’s gone, he’s made a point of respecting the situation – a skill that eludes a lot of egotistical coaches.

At Tennessee, he was the first coach to really embrace the success of a Lady Vols women’s program that other coaches tried to fight. Remember him with his chest painted orange in the fan section at a Tennessee women’s game?

(Sorry, maybe you’d been trying to forget that.)

Yes, Pearl ran afoul of the NCAA in Knoxville by lying about what should have been a fairly minor rules infraction. We have to accept the notion that no coach in the league will be more scrutinized to make sure he runs things on the up-and-up.

Or, some skeptical rival fans might say, now that he’s at Auburn they can show him the right way to cheat.

Random thoughts

• Food trucks are a big thing. I think I’ll start a news truck. “Whaddya want?” “I’ll take an update on Crimea. And a burrito.”

• I was excited when I heard Phil Jackson was named president. I was somewhat less excited when I heard it was president of the Knicks.

• I think Elvis called me the other day. He asked if something was going to be in the paper, then said “ThankYouVeryMuch.”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

We’re all fascinated by Cinderella stories this time of year, but let’s face it – Wofford is not winning the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Nothing personal, Terriers fans.

The names of the players and, sometimes, the coaches will change, but the team that cuts down the nets on the night of April 7 will come from a small pool of brand-name programs.

There have been seven different champions in the past seven years, and they’re the bluest of the contemporary college blue chips – Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Connecticut, Kentucky and Louisville.

Add in two other former champions, Arizona and Michigan State, and you have just about described the entire universe of teams that are likely to win this season.

This is the time of year when reality intrudes on regional bias. After hearing all season about Ole Miss, for instance, it was a little surprising to folks around here that the Rebels are sitting at home right now.

Even though I picked Florida to win in my “Billion-Dollar Bracket” entry, it won’t surprise me at all if the top-seeded Gators don’t even get to the Final Four.

I did an ESPN.com bracket where I followed its various metrics and I wound up with Arizona winning. We’ll see.

Here are my thoughts on a few of the early matchups, and some possible games that could happen between now and the Final Four:

Upset specials: We all immediately start looking at the 5 vs. 12 games because they so often deliver upsets. All four of this year’s 12 seeds are dangerous – Harvard, Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State and N.C. State. Boy, it’s weird to type “Harvard.”

Round of 32: Here’s where we might see what undefeated Wichita State is really made of, with a potential matchup against a Kentucky team that may be rounding into shape. I have San Diego State and Creighton advancing to the Sweet 16, too.

Round of 16: Florida could be in trouble if it meets UCLA here. Iowa State would stand a good chance of decking a 2 seed, Villanova, at this point.

Elite eight: I’m leaning on coaching reputation here, looking for defending champion Louisville (Rick Pitino) and Michigan State (Tom Izzo) to advance.

Final Four: In the billion-dollar bracket, I have Florida vs. Michigan State and Wisconsin vs. Louisville. I wouldn’t be surprised if I change that this morning, or at least think real hard about the wisdom of selling Arizona short at this point.

Two years ago, inspired by our pets, I did an online bracket that advanced teams with cat mascots. As it happened, Kentucky (Wildcats) won.

My cats think a billion dollars would buy a lot of cat food – the good stuff. We shall see.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal.

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

I always think of football season as being the time of year when the Daily Journal sports department is at its busiest, but I seem to forget about the spring until it gets here.

It comes around every year, of course. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and more forgetful.

Fact is, this is the only time of year that all three of the major sports are really in play.

It’s still basketball season – for the state’s high schools, through the end of this week, plus the SEC men’s tournament starting today and rolling right into Selection Sunday. Then March Madness begins for real.

(Yes, that means the NCAA tournament bracket will be in Monday’s paper. I don’t know if it will help you win a billion dollars, but it couldn’t hurt.)

Baseball? The colleges will start SEC play this weekend, high schools have been playing for a couple of weeks and the major leagues are in spring training.

When the phone rings in our office, it might be baseball, or softball, or golf or maybe it’s tennis. Seems like it could be soccer, too, but that’s a topic for another day.

Football is even in play this time of year. If you don’t think spring practice for college football matters, just wait until your quarterback hurts his shoulder in early April. Then it matters.

It’s a lot to keep up with, and I haven’t mentioned track and field or the area’s big running events, like the Gumtree 10k.

I’m just glad it’s finally warming up. Let’s play.

Random thoughts

• My favorite moment from the Clippers’ 48-point win over the Lakers last week was when they did that trick with the water bucket that’s actually full of confetti. Gets me every time.

• You have to give Barney Google credit. Beloved cartoon character goes on to invent a great search engine despite his goo-goo-googly eyes.

• The movie “Escape From New York” is set in 1997. I’m not prepared to say that John Carpenter missed it by more than 20 years

• Spelling “Krzyzewski” is why cut-and-paste was invented.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

By John L. Pitts

Daily Journal

BIGGERSVILLE – It was less of a basketball game and more of a heavyweight prize fight.

And in the end, it took an extra round to settle.

LITTLE

LITTLE

Coldwater outslugged defending Class 1A champion Biggersville on its own court Thursday afternoon, winning 72-67 in overtime.

The host Lions (25-6), with seven seniors on their roster, “left it all on the floor,” a drained coach Cliff Little said when the game – and his team’s season – was over.

“We knew some very good teams would be gone after today,” Little said. “We never got into a rhythm and Coldwater hit some big shots. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”

Coldwater’s Brian Polk, a 6-1 junior, was deadly with mid-range jumpers, scoring a game-high 25 points. He scored four of his team’s nine points in the overtime.

But his Cougars almost threw the game away at the end of regulation.

Tied at 63 with 3.3 seconds left, they botched an inbound pass under their own basket and it wound up in the hands of Biggersville’s Jaylon Gaines.

Gaines’ potential game-winner at the rim wouldn’t go down.

“I thought it was over at that point,” said Coldwater head coach Wirt Spiva, who team won the 2012 1A state title. “We put it in Gaines’ hands with the game on the line? We dodged it right there, but we’ve been playing in games like these all season. We’re battle tested.”

Big farewell

Daniel Simmons led Biggersville with 23 points in his final high school game, including three 3-pointers in the final 2:19 of regulation. Darian Bennett was huge in the early going while his teammates struggled and finished with 23.

Emmanuel Simmons, another senior, tied it at 63 with a pair of free throws with 3.3 left.

“We were just exhausted at the end,” Little said. “I so proud of this team and they way they dug down. These seniors gave this school and community a lot to be proud of. They’ll be missed.”

Coldwater (25-6) advances to play Ingomar in today’s 7 p.m. game at Biggersville.

john.pitts@journalinc.com

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

I don’t want to start competing with our Kevin Tate as an outdoors columnist, but I have a few words I would like to share about deer:

Kill them all.

The deer have begun gathering on the sides of the road again. Before they get me, I would like to get them first.

It’s been about a year since my most recent deer-related auto accident, a literal fender-bender that happened on my way home from work. I spend most of my time on the drive home watching the right shoulder for deer, so of course this one ambled in from the left.

Another half second, I would have missed it. Timing is everything.

Which is why I don’t think we need specific deer season. It should be deer season all year long.

If I can kill a deer with a Honda at any time of year, I should also be able to do so with a Remington. Or my bare hands.

If it were up to me, MDOT would have a fleet of Mad Max-style trucks – festooned with steel spikes and barbed wire – patrolling the roads day and night, harvesting as many deer as dared stand on the roadside. Spotlighting wouldn’t be illegal, it would be encouraged.

In addition to primitive and contemporary weapons, the state should approve the use of futuristic weapons as well. Laser swords, drones, nanobots – whatever works. Set phasers to kill … deer.

There’s historic precedent for all this.

We nearly killed off all the buffalo once upon a time. We need a return of that fighting American spirit, this time aimed – literally – at this infestation of roadside terrorists.

We can keep a few in zoos and deer parks, but that’s enough.

And after that’s fixed, we’ll get the squirrels.

Random thoughts

• I was having trouble with my office computer and it turned out to be a bad mouse. Not a piece of equipment, a real mouse that chewed on the network cables. Probably in league with the deer.

• Ole Miss should invite Norway’s much-decorated Olympian, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, to visit Oxford. He’d probably have a grand ole time.

• I read there’s a national clown shortage. They’re all in Washington.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal.