March 19, 2014 6:55:50 PM
Even after all of these years, there is still something special about the Mississippi Coliseum.
While the state features bigger, better and much more modern arenas, there is still something unique about watching high school basketball at the Big House.
Last week, your faithful scribe had another chance to cover another team playing in the Mississippi High School Activities Association state tournament. The local area was represented by both the New Hope girls and the West Lowndes boys in this season's premier event.
For close to 20 years now, this newspaper career has included many jaunts to the Big House, to cover all types of teams from Meridian to Collins to North Forrest to Starkville. It is still fun to reflect back on those early trips which always involved a pregame snack at Dunkin' Donuts. The game included some coliseum ice cream. The trip back to Hattiesburg usually involved the Magee Western Sizzlin' - still the best steakhouse in this state.
The teams playing in the coliseum were being rewarded for a banner season. There was really no reasons why the newspaper writer couldn't treat himself for a banner season as well.
In the early days of the message board world, a lengthy post on the Southern Miss message board one day accused me of writing way too much about food. Well, guilty as charged. There is no reason why good food can't be discussed in a personal opinion forum.
NEW HOPE IN THE HOUSE
Spinning forward to this past week, it was a genuine pleasure to watch the New Hope girls do battle, falling two points shy of South Jones in the Class 5A state semifinal round Monday night. As high as South Jones was Monday night, the enthusiasm was dampened five days later when the Lady Braves lost the state championship game for a third straight year.
Making the Big House has always been a sign that your season - win or lose in Jackson - was a major success. Sometimes, teams in the baseball College World Series get hot at the right time and do not belong among the elite. Each year, Cinderella arrives during March Madness and a team unheard of could reach the Elite Eight or Final Four in men's basketball.
With four boys' teams and four girls' teams qualifying for each of the state's six classifications, miraculous runs to the Big House are few and far between. You have had to have played awfully well at the right time against the right opponent to punch your ticket to Jackson.
Three of the best Columbus High School girls' teams ever fielded fell one game shy of the coliseum in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The Starkville High boys were an odds-on favorite to reach Jackson this season. Two regular-season wins over Madison Central only aided that thought process. Still playing at home, Starkville fell to Grenada - a team it had already beaten twice - in the game to get to the coliseum.
Coach Laura Lee Holman and her New Hope girls also experienced the sharp pain of an ending that did not go their way. New Hope lost in overtime to Lanier in the game to get to Jackson a season ago. While last week's ending still brought tears, there had to be a totally different sense of satisfaction for having played in the Big House. After all, the New Hope girls had not ventured on the hollow grounds sine 1989.
As always a trip to the Big House presents an opportunity to see some of the state's premier players up close and personal. Many had not seen Scott Central High School scoring sensation Victoria Vivians until her squad laced it up for her final prep games in Jackson. Malik Newman, widely considered the state's top boys prospect in the Class of 2015, dazzled the crowd as he led Callaway to the Class 5A state championship. Granted, those hopes were almost derailed early as Callaway had to erase an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat a 12-loss Laurel team in the state semifinal round.
Again, Laurel did not have the statistics to wow. However, the always well-dressed Marcus Price had his team on cue and ready to play the game of their lives. Once you reach the coliseum, the record does not matter, you have done something very worthwhile to earn your keep.
The New Hope girls trip to Jackson was a long time in the making. The Lady Trojans started five seniors - D.J. Sanders, Mercedes Mattix, Taylor Baudoin, Moesha Calmes and Kaitlin Bradley. In the past two years, the Lady Trojans played 56 games and won 51 of them. It is a joy to watch a well-coached team who enjoys playing with one another, with each playing pushing one another to be their best at the time when it matters most.
New Hope learned its lessons from the bitter defeat of last season and left no doubt this year - winning three games in the North State tournament by an average margin of 19 points.
Then again on this level, everyone has learned from a disappointment in the past. Everyone is well-coached. Everyone has saved their best for this moment.
In the final five minutes last Monday night, South Jones looked liked a team that had played six games in the coliseum in the past three years. The experience was vital when one final push was needed.
As we enter the off-season many schools will conduct summer workouts and play a summer league schedule. Someone right now has the tournament dates for next season already written on the calendar. It is always exciting when a team from the area allows you a chance to go to Jackson. When they lost their first seven games, Jackson had to be the furtherest thing from the minds of the West Lowndes boys.
If you keep believing though, anything is possible.
The Dunkin Donuts is no longer in business. Fortunately, a Whataburger now stands in its place. The chocolate shake late last Monday night sure did taste good. It was the proper ending to another outstanding prep basketball season.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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