GENE PHELPS: Surprised everybody by winning a state title, and we got this T-shirt

By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The T-shirt vendor at the Mississippi Coliseum worked overtime Thursday following Booneville’s 60-55 victory over Corinth for the MHSAA Class 3A state championship.
“Booneville Blue Devils – 2011 State Champions” the shirt’s front proclaimed.
For $18 a pop, thrilled Blue Devils fans were lined up to purchase a 100 percent cotton/screen-printed memento from their basketball team’s season to remember.
And what a season it was, especially near the end.
The Blue Devils, not considered a “team to watch” in the preseason, proved to be just that in the postseason. The Michael Smith-coached squad closed their season with an exciting six-game run to bring home the gold ball.
“I can’t explain it because I don’t know if we ever knew we’d have this opportunity,” Smith told the media.
As coaches are prone to do, Smith emphasized over and over that it was a team win. He kept the theme alive postgame, bringing the entire team – 20 strong – to the news conference.
“We’re a family,” Smith said, “it’s the reason we’re here.”
And just outside the interview room, in the coliseum’s hallway, the T-shirt-printing machine was humming.

Girls expected to shine
While few expected to see Booneville in the Big House, that was not the case with H.W. Byers, New Albany and Ripley. All three girls teams were expected to challenge for a gold ball.
All three returned home with championship hardware:
n Byers did it by playing 21 games without its star, junior guard Alexis Hardaway, who was sidelined with a torn knee ligament (PCL).
In order to prepare his team for an eventual postseason run, Byers coach Jason Thompson lined up a tough schedule. His 29-win team paid the price with eight losses, seven to out-of-state clubs.
“There are only a few people who played the competition we played,” Thompson said. “It helped us this year.”
Byers beat Coldwater 48-43 in the 1A championship game.
n New Albany coach John Stroud, whose club went undefeated last season until a loss in the 4A state title game, beefed up his team’s schedule, too.
The senior-dominated Lady Bulldogs – New Albany’s four senior starters finished with an impressive 87-10 three-year record – were 29-4 with all their losses coming to out-of-state teams.
“These girls have won everything there is to win,” Stroud said earlier this week. “It would be a shame if they didn’t win state.”
New Albany defeated Lawrence County 71-61 on Friday to claim its elusive gold ball.
n Ripley’s players experienced the heartache of losing a state championship last season. Shunquest Howell was one of those disappointed Lady Tigers.
“Last year there was a sad look on everybody’s faces. I’m not sure we know how to celebrate,” she told reporters in a postgame news conference.
What’s interesting about Ripley’s success has been the rise of coach Katie Bates, a former volunteer assistant who was awarded the job after two others turned it down.
Bates says the reason she was in the right place at the right time was because she loves basketball.
You can bet Ripley loves her, too, especially after the Lady Tigers’ 57-54 win against Choctaw Central for the 3A state championship.

Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593 or gene.phelps@journalinc.com.