May 13, 2010 8:04:00 AM
HAMILTON - At most high schools, winning division titles, playing in North Half title series, and competing for state championships are the stuff of dreams.
That's not the case at Hamilton High School, however, where the baseball team has garnered more than its share of championships in the past 16 years.
So that begs the question: What ingredients have had a major impact in building the Lions' successful diamond program?
Casual observers, as well as knowledgeable fans, will point to many different elements that have contributed to Hamilton's success: Talent, coaching, excellent facilities, a good feeder program, support from the administration, etc.
As for any sports team, players and assistant coaches come and go, but the constant that has helped the Lions' program become one of the state's most respected is the leadership of coach Lewis Earnest.
Earnest, who will turn 47 this summer, is in his 16th season at the Lions' helm. To date, his Hamilton High teams have averaged 22 wins a year and compiled a 355-124 record (74.1 winning percentage). Bouncing between the Class 1A-2A ranks, Earnest's teams have won three state championships (1997, 1999, and 2001), nine North Half State titles, and 14 division crowns, including 10 in a row from 1995-2004.
When not coaching baseball, Earnest also has guided the Hamilton Lady Lions' slow-pitch softball team to two state championships and a 223-104 record (68.2 winning percentage).
At 6:30 tonight, Hamilton will face Bruce in game one of a best-of-three series for the Class 2A North Half State title. The winner will earn a berth in the state finals at Trustmark Park in Pearl later this month.
There is no doubt baseball and the Earnest family have been inseparably connected for three generations. They still have a prominent role in the Hamilton program, as nephew Dylan Earnest and sons Austin and Ethan all play for the Lions, while daughter, Emily, is the team's scorekeeper. Younger brother Jason is an assistant coach, while Earnest's mother and wife are in the stands to support the team at every game.
"For the entire Earnest family, baseball is a way of life," said Earnest who, along with Jason, learned the basics of the game at an early age from their father, Ed. Although he never coached one of Lewis' baseball teams, Ed Earnest was the guiding force in his sons' early development.
"My dad was never my Dixie Youth coach per se, but I received plenty of instruction in the basics of the game at home," Earnest said. "He built me a mound with a real rubber to pitch from and dug post holes for a backstop with chicken wire in our back yard. He was always helping me and, as a result, I spent a lot of time in my back yard learning the game."
As Lewis became older and space became a problem, Ed took his son to the Dixie Youth fields to hit.
"I'll never forget one time we were working out," Earnest said. "I was pitching to Stanley Doss and for some reason my dad was catching behind the plate without a mask. Stanley fouled one off and the ball broke my dad's nose."
When not helping his son with the fundamentals of the game, Earnest's father, now deceased, served as Aberdeen Dixie Youth commissioner and later became the Northeast Mississippi District director. As a result, the Earnests spent many a day at the Dixie Youth fields cleaning and fixing things up.
"Dad, along with my mom, Joyce, and Jason and I would be out there every Sunday picking up trash," Earnest said, "and my parents would be painting the dugouts or the concession stand or mowing the grass - anything to help take care of the place so the kids in Aberdeen would have a decent place to play baseball."
Earnest went on to become a three-year starter for Aberdeen High as a pitcher/shortstop. He came into his own as a junior when he went 12-0, only to lose to Hattiesburg in the state championship game.
"My first game, I threw a perfect game against Saltillo in a tournament at Shannon and, being the superstitious type, I refused to get my hair cut until I lost," Earnest said. "So by the time the Hattiesburg game rolled around, I had pretty long hair and my catcher, Charlie Smith, had a shaved head, so we made a pretty funny looking pair."
The Hattiesburg players also took note of Aberdeen's odd couple and some pretty intense bench-jockeying took place.
"I was fairly short at 5-10 and the Hattiesburg players would yell, 'Get off your knees, hippie.' Then they would get on Charlie and call him 'onion head and G.I. Joe.'"
Following graduation from AHS, Earnest joined teammates Mitch Edwards, David Holliday, and Smith at ICC, where Earnest spent the next two years as a pitcher. As a sophomore, he won the ICC Pitching Award and was named to the inaugural Junior College All-State first team.
Earnest had a few offers to continue his career at some smaller four-year schools, but he opted to attend Mississippi State, where he intended to, but never did, walk on. Eventually he dropped out of MSU and went to work the next five years, but every time he would go to a baseball game to see Jason play, he realized how much he missed the game.
Finally, Brett Bethay, an old high school teammate who had transferred to MSU from Delta State, convinced Earnest to return to school for his degree. Mark Morgan, a local business owner, gave him a job and Earnest commuted to Starkville in pursuit of his degree.
Following graduation in the summer of 1991, he went to a coaching clinic with Smith and Delta State coach Bill Marchant. Despite having no Division I or II playing experience or any high school coaching experience, Smith recommended Earnest to Marchant, who hired him as his graduate assistant to handle the pitching staff.
"I was scared to death to ask him for a job," Earnest said. "Then too, calling pitches for a college program as successful as Delta State was also a scary feeling."
Earnest spent the rest of 1991 and the spring and summer of 1992 coaching baseball at DSU and working on his master's degree. He also married his wife, Debbie.
In the fall of 1992, Aberdeen High principal Dwight McComb, Earnest's offensive coordinator when he played football at AHS, hired him as an assistant under coach Gary Anderson who, ironically enough, was DSU's pitching coach the year before Marchant hired Earnest.
Two years later, Anderson left for a job in Texas and Earnest was offered the Aberdeen and Hamilton high school head coaching positions. But after learning Superintendent John Curlee and McComb planned to retire in the near future, Earnest opted to take the position at Hamilton High.
Despite all his success as a baseball coach, Earnest is the first to admit he has had a lot of help building the program at Hamilton.
"Our principal, Mark Howell, has been very supportive of everything I've wanted to do," Earnest said, "as has the Hamilton Diamond Club, which has provided the funds to build what has to be one of the best high school facilities in the state. The local feeder program has produced many of the players who have contributed to our success over the years.
"In addition, I've been fortunate to have had a good staff of assistants since taking over, including this year's group of Matt Atkins, Devin Hill and my brother, Jason, who is an unpaid para-professional with a full-time job at a local plant in Aberdeen."
Earnest also credits friends and mentors for their help.
"There were a lot of people in my life, men like youth coaches Max Russell, Billy King, Thomas Young, Robert Doss, and Tom Seymer, who helped me get to where I am today," Earnest said. "Then friends like Charlie Smith, Mark Morgan, and Brett Bethay, and coaches Bill Marchant, Gary Anderson, Dwight McComb, and Thomas Pierce were there for me when I needed them."
Last but not least, Earnest said his family has been his biggest inspiration.
"My wife, Debbie, who has put in a lot of late nights with the kids with me not being there, and my mom are my biggest supporters," Earnest said. "I