By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Baldwyn coach Jason McKay doesn’t balk when asked about what high school basketball means to the folks in his town.
He played for the Bearcats and helped them win their last two state championships in 1986 and ’87. His father, Larry, coached them to a state title in ’75.
Today, as their coach, McKay has his team one win away from bringing another gold ball home to the Prentiss County school.
“There’s a lot of tradition in Baldwyn,” McKay said. “Our town is very, very passionate about the game of basketball.”
The same can be said this week for basketball fans in Belmont, Biggersville, Booneville, Mt. Pleasant (H.W. Byers), New Site, Ripley and Walnut.
All eight have teams playing Thursday and Friday at the Mississippi Coliseum for a state championship.
Teams from Corinth, Lafayette County, Oxford, Pontotoc, Starkville and Tupelo will attempt to qualify for the finals, starting today.
At least two Northeast Mississippi teams will bring home gold balls this week thanks to two all-Hill Country clashes: New Site vs. Walnut in 2A girls and Belmont vs. Ripley in 3A girls.
Both matchups have plenty of intrigue. Walnut’s girls lost to New Site by 44 points in the North state tournament championship game at New Site.
The Lady Wildcats, who upset top-rated Taylorsville, 60-50, last week in the state semifinals, believe they can hang with the Lady Royals on a neutral court.
“We want another shot at New Site,” said Presley Pulse, who scored 19 points in Walnut’s win over Taylorsville.
Walnut coach Larry Tribble is excited about the rematch, too. “We only played bad one time this year and that was against New Site,” he said.
The Lady Royals, however, are on a mission to win a state championship, especially after losing the last two seasons in the finals. It would be the school’s first gold ball in girls’ basketball.
Belmont’s Lady Cardinals and Ripley’s Lady Tigers played in the state finals two years ago with Belmont winning gold. Last year, Ripley defeated Belmont-beating Choctaw Central, for the state title.
Belmont comes in the underdog following its 42-39 loss on its homecourt to Ripley in the North finals.
“When it comes down to it, it’s going to be the team who executes the most who wins,” Belmont coach Chris Higginbottom said. “We have a lot of respect for Ripley.”
As the late Bill Ross, the Daily Journal’s longtime sports editor, used to write: These are exciting times in the Hill Country.
Gene Phelps (gene.phelps@ journalinc.com) covers high school sports for the Daily Journal.