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Locals gear up for third annual Hoops for Troops tournament


Adam Minichino



Jennifer Latham and the Columbus Lady Celtics aren't concerned about making history. 


Instead, Latham and her basketball teammates from Columbus and the Tupelo area are more focused on being part of an annual event that gives back to the military and family members. 


That's why Latham and nine teammates are looking forward to the third annual Hoops for Troops tournament at Caledonia High School. The event, which will begin at 8 a.m. July 14, will be a fundraiser for the Family Readiness Group fund that supports families of the members of Alpha Battery 2-114 Strike in Columbus. 


"We wanted to do something to help them out," said Latham, who played basketball at Columbus High and at Northeast Mississippi Community College. "I have not been to the tournament, but I have known about it." 


Ernest Robinson, store manager of the Walmart on Highway 45 in Columbus, had helped organize the event each year. He said the first event raised $3,000. He said the 2011 event raised double that amount, which is why he hopes this year's version can climb to $9,000 or $10,000. He said five teams already have registered for the double-elimination tournament, and that he hopes at least five more will join in the fun. 


"It is just an effort by Walmart to support the troops and embrace the activities that they do," Robinson said. "We want to promote community involvement and teamwork." 


Robinson said Walmart will have two teams from the Columbus store and another team from its store in Starkville at the tournament. He said his goal is to make sure all of the players who want to participate get playing time. 


Latham won't be the only former local basketball standout to compete. Courtney Shelton and Brittany Wilson, who played with Latham at Columbus High, will play with the Lady Celtics with Quan Wilson, who went to West Lowndes, Latham said. She said she heard other women's teams planned to take part, and that it didn't matter if the Lady Celtics wound up being the only women's team to compete. 


"It will be good competition for us," said Latham, who graduated from Columbus High in 2003. She earned a full scholarship to NEMCC, where she earned an associate's degree in accounting. She also earned an associate's degree in medical office technology from East Mississippi C.C. "We talked about (playing against men's teams) and it is all for fun and games, so it is no problem if we do." 


Latham, a point guard, hopes the team can practice Friday and Saturday to help it prepare for the event. 


"It was only right for us to participate and to showcase a little bit, but to help and to give back to the troops who give back so much to us," Latham said. "It was a win-win situation on both sides." 


Fermin Haro, who works as a supervisor at Tupelo Ear, Nose, and Throat, feels the same way. His business sponsored a team to participate in the first two events, and he said it has been one of the best organized tournaments his group has played in. He said it is a bonus the event is for a great cause. 


"There are a bunch of good teams and pretty much everyone is competitive," said Haro, who played basketball at Hatley High. His team plays twice a week for about three hours a night in the Amory area. 


Alpha Battery 2-114 Strike First Sergeant Michael Duncan said the tournament has provided a big boost for morale. He said the money raised has been used to provide Christmas gifts and meals for the troops. He praised the work of Robinson, Candi Blaylock, an invoice clerk at Walmart, and everyone at the store for giving back to the community. 


"It has gotten a lot of positive feedback," Duncan said. "The money is used for all of the troops, and it has helped supplement our income."  


Unfortunately, Duncan and his detachments will be involved in training next weekend at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, so everyone won't be able to attend the event. But he said he plans to take three or four members back to Caledonia so they can have a presence and convey their appreciation to all of the volunteers and competitors. 


Robinson said the first- and second-place teams will receive prizes. He said teams can have no more than 12 players on each team. The entry fee for teams is $125. Admission to the event will be $2. He said there will be multiple prizes -- donated by Walmart -- to be won, as well as giveaways and drawings. The concession stands also will be open to provide refreshments. 


"It is going to be a fun-filled day," Robinson said. 


To register a team, contact Robinson or Blaylock at 329-4810. The deadline is July 10.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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