June 20, 2014 4:22:52 AM
New Hope High School baseball coach Lee Boyd stood with a couple of booster club members outside the baseball stadium at Pearl High.
Boyd and the boosters were making notes and taking photos of the bullpen area adjacent to the first base dugout. While two pitchers' mounds were present at Pearl, Boyd said he wanted three and went into great detail about how nice the Pearl bullpens were and how he would appreciate something similar.
New Hope had just defeated Pearl to advance in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs. Two weeks later, New Hope dispatched West Jones to become the first team in the program's rich history to repeat as baseball state champions.
On another side of Lowndes County, Columbus High was busy washing uniforms and putting away mementos from one of the best seasons in program history. After watching nine seniors suit up for the final time, coach Jeffrey Cook was thinking about his future.
Cook was hired earlier this week as an assistant football coach at South Pontotoc High School. It turns out Cook -- in his eight seasons at Columbus High -- could beat a bunch of opponents but not the system.
Boyd has won two state championships in five seasons. New Hope continues to build bigger and better. Cook guided the Falcons to a school-record four consecutive playoff berths. However, players have been asked to buy uniforms and Cook sweated having enough gas money for the bus for out-of-town road trips in 2013.
Columbus won 23 games this past season, second only to John Wilson's 26-win squad in 1999. When the season ended, Cook sounded like a man beaten down by the process of trying to make Columbus baseball matter.
"I am proud of this group of guys," said Cook, after a season-ending 3-1 loss to Tupelo in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A North State playoffs. "I told them I was disappointed but proud. They did something that had never been done before here (two playoff series wins) and they did it without the support of anyone in the district.
"If you look at our facilities, they overcame it. They worked hard. They went the extra mile. They bought into what we were doing as sixth- and seventh-graders. I watched this group in the fifth grade. I knew they were going to be really good."
After watching the young players, Cook made what he felt was a long-term commitment to Columbus. He leaves the school as the longest-tenured baseball coach. Like most young and energetic coaches, Cook believed things would improve with time.
However, a group of hard working "yes sir, no sir" ballplayers will only get you so far, especially when competing in the state's highest classification. In a problem not isolated to Columbus baseball, the Falcons struggled to draw noticeable attendance figures. With the exception of rivalry games in football and basketball, Columbus High attendance figures are atrocious across the board. There is no attempt to market the athletic programs and attempts to build a fan base in the community fizzle before getting started.
Still, the Falcons made a pact to one another. They were in it for the long haul. They loved one another and it didn't really matter who on the outside cared about the program. Senior Michael Sturdivant called Cook "the most underrated baseball coach in the state." Sixteen players have signed college scholarship offers under his watch. The players and coaches bought in to one another, even when no one else did.
New Hope plays with the swagger of a seven-time state champion. Baseball games are considered an "in thing" to attend. At Columbus, students would be hard-pressed to name the date or next opponent for the baseball team. Throughout this year's run, the Trojans talked about the importance of getting the crowd back on their side last year, trying to prove New Hope baseball was back after a 10-year drought without a title. Columbus continues to fight hard to get fans to show up.
"It hurts that people didn't get behind us until the last three weeks," Cook said after the final game. "For six years, we worked to get an indoor place. We are still sitting here without one. This group deserved it more than any other group. They worked hard and deserved it. This group persevered and overcame. In the end, they had nothing but each other."
The Columbus school board has three times turned down an extensive renovation package for its athletic complexes. An indoor hitting facility has been part of that plan. For some time, it appeared obvious Cook would be forced to look at other options unless the tide changed.
Board members continue to show a minimal level of interest in athletics. The constant flux in the superintendent's office and principal's office doesn't help, either. Each school has a large group of parents who support athletics and help push for better situations. The same could be said for Columbus.
Andy Tentoni, whose son, Josh, played at CHS, spent $7,000 of his business' funds to replace light bulbs in the Sammy Fletcher Stadium scoreboard prior to the 2010 season. Tentoni also rounded up private donations to make other repairs the school board wasn't willing to support.
Seniors Hunter Mullis and Chris McCullough completed their prep careers this year Yet, fathers Jim Mullis and Bobby McCullough continue to attend school board meetings and fight for the indoor facility.
At the end of the day, they were fighting for way more than an indoor facility. They were fighting to keep an outstanding coach and an even better man in charge of the Columbus High baseball program.
Again, the answer was no. At Columbus High, it is almost always no.
That is another reason why one school hangs a state championship banner and contemplates adding bullpens while the other gathers applications and prepares to pick another young and energetic coach with lofty goals and a desire to fight an uphill battle from the first pitch.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
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