By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
Keith Jernigan spent most of his adult life in the grocery business, but his heart was always in coaching.
“It’s been my dream to coach since I was a 12- or 13-year-old boy,” he said.
Jernigan, 50, reached the pinnacle of coaching last month when his Houston Lady Hilltoppers swept a series against Newton County to win the MHSAA Class 4A state championship at Ridgeland’s Freedom Park.
Jernigan, who just completed his 11th season in coaching, is the Daily Journal’s 2012 Coach of the Year for leading his team to a 34-2 record and the school’s first state title in any sport since 1985.
Smithville’s Jeremy Duke, Nettleton’s Dana Rhea and Hatley’s Chris George, who led their teams to the state championship series, were all considered for the award.
Duke’s Lady Seminoles won the 1A state title in fastpitch and slowpitch this season.
Jernigan is quick to share his success with assistant coaches Braxton Franks, John Gravat, Derick Kirby and student coaches Wayne Arick and Jason Smith.
“This should be the coaching staff of the year,” Jernigan said. “They put in almost as much work as I did.
“We all worked together, shooting for this goal.”
Jernigan also credited his players for remaining focused on their goal of winning a state championship. The Lady Hilltoppers had a 20-game winning streak and lost only to 5A North champion New Hope during the regular season.
“Everybody had a common bond,” he said. “There were very few distractions. The girls had a vision of winning state. That was their goal from the first day of practice.
“They felt like they could beat anybody they played. A confidence level like that is a big factor.”
Jernigan’s aggressive style of coaching comes from his passion for the game.
“This group of players accepted that style of coaching,” he said. “It’s pretty much the way I’ve always been. When I step out there on the field, I’m ready to win.
“I’ve had to tone it down some,” he added, then smiled.
Gravat, who has coached with Jernigan for many years in summer baseball, believes Jernigan’s passion for the game is genuine.
“Keith and I been at this together since 1992,” said Gravat, whose daughter, Haley, is the Journal’s Player of the Year. “He’s very competitive.”