Title hopefuls: Some surprise teams reach state semifinals

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Katie Bates will take her Pine Grove girls to Jackson after four straight tourney trips with Ripley.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Katie Bates will take her Pine Grove girls to Jackson after four straight tourney trips with Ripley.

By Brandon Speck

Daily Journal

Katie Bates went home and now she’s going back to her March vacation home – the Mississippi Coliseum.

Jason McKay is trying to lead his Baldwyn team to its first back-to-back championships since his late-80s playing days.

Booneville is in Jackson for the fourth straight season with a Geno – this time it’s Cora Geno and the girls’ team.

Pontotoc’s girls aren’t going; Itawamba AHS is. Corinth’s boys aren’t, Shannon is.

An unexpected Journal-area field begins the MHSAA state basketball tournament on Friday.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Shannon's boys celebrate with the 4A North trophy on Saturday.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Shannon’s boys celebrate with the 4A North trophy on Saturday.

“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a manager,” Baldwyn sophomore point guard Conner McKay said. “I don’t know what to say. You work in the offseason for it, every day in practice. I can’t describe it.”

Jackson is March’s ultimate destination, the ultimate prize a gold championship ball.

Class 4A semifinalists Shannon boys and Itawamba AHS girls open tourney play on March 11. Itawamba’s girls lost four starters and are making the trip with first-year coach Devin Hill.

“We’re excited to be where we are,” Hill said. “There are some fun things happening here and I’m just happy to be here and be a part of it.”

‘Just a coach’

Bates had led Ripley to four straight state tournaments, including a championship. When she took a job at hometown Pine Grove this season, she took it without graduated all-area 20-point scorer Bryana Davis, and yet has the Lady Panthers in the 1A state semifinals, Friday at 6:30 p.m. against Hinds AHS.

“I’m just blessed,’ Bates said. “I hate for the hype to be about me because I’m nothing, just an everyday basketball coach. There are coaches that know way more than I do. But those girls they have hearts the size of the heavens. You can’t even explain how big their hearts are. I couldn’t be happier for them. It’s indescribable.

“When I got here and laid it out, they bought in. Nobody expected them to be a contender in division, and they win division. Nobody expected them to win 20 games and they’re 28-7. Nobody expected them to go to Jackson.”

Baldwyn may be the least surprising of the field, in the state tournament for the fourth time in five seasons – all title games and with a championship last season.

The 2A Bearcats will play Heidelberg on Friday at 2:30. Class 2A runner-up Calhoun City plays Marshall on Friday at 10:30 a.m. Byers’ girls face Newton at 9 a.m.

Saturday, Booneville’s girls and Belmont’s girls play at 1 p.m. and 6:30 against Crystal Springs and Hazlehurst.

Booneville’s boys, who opened the season with one experienced player, came within a game of a fourth straight trip to Jackson. Belmont, a 1-3A Booneville rival, has only one senior, guard Natasha Jones.

Contributing: Kedrick Storey, Southern Sentinel

brandon.speck@journalinc.com