HED:Prentiss County tournament
By Bobby Pepper
The opening game of the Prentiss County Tournament was still 30 minutes away, and already Garvis George and Betty Ledbetter were in their courtside seats ready for the action to start.
Even if the first game was a B-team matchup between New Site and Booneville, they wanted to be there. After all, it was the county basketball tournament and they wouldn’t miss it.
“I enjoy it because I can watch them all play, the whole county,” Ledbetter said. “If my money holds up right, I’ll be here every night because I want to see Booneville and New Site.”
George, who sat three chairs down from Ledbetter, said the Prentiss County Tournament at Northeast Mississippi Community College is like a family reunion people from all corners of the county turn out to support their schools.
“I’ve been coming here a long time,” said the 75-year-old George, an avid Wheeler fan. “We all look forward to it.”
Even though the number of county basketball tournaments has decreased over the years, it is still an important date on the schedule for many Northeast Mississippi schools. Six counties have tournaments and there’s also a regional county tourney.
At a county tournament, the competition, fan support and tradition flourish. It’s a chance for friends, neighbors and rivals to meet at one gym and decide for that year who’s the best in the county regardless of how many times they play each other during the season.
“Community competition is great,” said Robert Hereford, a former coach and administrator in the Tupelo school system. “It has always been that way. Kind of like ‘Family Feud.’ “
Today and yesterday
Northeast Mississippi is in the middle of what could be labled as “County Championship Week.” Three county tournaments Alcorn, Tippah and Prentiss were played last week. The Lee, Monroe and Union tournaments are set for this week.
There is one regional county tournament the Tri-County, shared by Calhoun, Lafayette and Yalobusha counties. It was played this season in December.
The site of the Alcorn, Tippah, Monroe, Union and Tri-County tournaments rotates each year among the participating schools. The Prentiss is played annually at Northeast’s Bonner Arnold Coliseum while the Lee County tourney is hosted by the Tupelo Coliseum.
The number of county tournaments, and even the number of teams in a tourney, have declined over the years mostly due to school consolidation and scheduling limitations. Pontotoc and Tishomingo are two counties that at one time hosted tournaments.
James Burrow, a coach and athletic administrator in Monroe County for 38 years, remembers when the Monroe County Tournament had more than its current five-school lineup.
“The 1957-58 year was the first year after consolidation,” he said. “Prior to that, there were eight schools Greenwood Springs, Becker, Wren, Hamilton, Hatley, Smithville, Amory and Aberdeen.”
The Lee County Tournament at one time had twice as many schools as the five it has now. Schools like Cedar Hill, Unity, Belden, Verona and East Tupelo were split into north and south divisions. The top division teams met at a neutral site to decide the county champs.
Hereford, who coached at Tupelo’s Carver High School before integration, said there was at one time a Lee County tournament for its black schools.
“They all had basketball teams. Most of them couldn’t afford to play football except for Carver,” he said. “It was very competitive, just like it is now.”
Burrow said the intensity of county competition hasn’t changed from when he played for Smithville and later coached at Hatley and Amory.
“The rivalries were all keen because all the kids knew each other and ran into each other throughout the year,” he said. “During those days, Amory had some good teams. Needless to say, it made the small county schools’ day when they were able to beat Amory.”
West Union coach Ken Basil has seen the Union County Tournament as a player and then as a coach at opposing schools. Basil played for Myrtle in the late 1970s.
“I feel like it’s one of the most competitive tournaments around,” said Basil, whose girls team is the defending Class 1A state champ but lost to East Union in last year’s county finals. “It means a lot to these schools. A lot of folks that you don’t see any other time will come to this tournament. When I played, it was something I always looked forward to.
“It’s just a great atmosphere for these kids, the coaches, fans, everybody.”
Even though the county tournaments are few in number, the memories and the excitement of playing in one are plentiful.
Kelly Essary, a senior forward with the Alcorn Central girls team, said she enjoyed helping her team win the Alcorn County title on its home floor last week. She scored 12 points in the Lady Bears’ 65-43 title win over Kossuth.
“Girls games don’t usually have that big a crowd. But when we play the county tournament, it’s packed,” she said. “It’s fun to run out on the floor with a lot of people clapping.
“It was exciting. Winning the tournament means a lot to the people in this town.”
Winning a county title can also be memorable for a coach, as Ripley’s Shane Montgomery found out last week. Before an overflow crowd at Pine Grove, Montgomery led his Lady Tigers to their first Tippah County girls title since 1992.
“It was the first time I ever coached in a county tournament,” he said. “The gym was jam packed. I didn’t realize it would draw that many people. The county tournament is very special to the people here.”