The packed house at the Columbus High School gymnasium reacts to a play during the game between the New Hope and Columbus high boys basketball teams at the 21st-annual Joe Horne Christmas Classic last year. The teams will meet again at 8 p.m. Saturday (scheduled start time) in the final game of the two-day event, which kicks off Friday. Photo by: Dispatch File Photo
December 21, 2018 10:10:22 AM
Phillip Morris hasn't had a chance to exhale yet.
The process of coaching the Columbus High School boys basketball team and putting the finishing touches on the 22nd-annual Joe Horne Christmas Classic, which will be this weekend at Columbus High, came to a head Thursday as white sheets of papers with team names to correspond to their locker rooms were laid out on the first few rows of bleachers on the left side of the gym. On the court, Columbus High girls basketball coach Yvonne Hairston surveyed her players as they practiced their free throws prior to her team's two marquee matchups in the annual event.
Morris, who is in his first season as Columbus High's coach, understands the importance of the Christmas Classic, which is named in honor of the former scorekeeper for Columbus High basketball and longtime supporter of the school's sports who died in 2003. He and his teammates handed out gift cards at the local Food Giant Supermarket in Columbus and helped customers with their groceries as part of their community service work under former coach Sammy Smith.
Morris stayed involved in the preparation and planning for the event the last few years as an assistant coach on staff. Following the departure of Anthony Carlyle last season, Morris shifted into the role of primary organizer, facilitator, problem-solver, and all-around jack of all trades to help pull off another great two days of basketball in Columbus.
"It is a great opportunity for me to see it (as a player) and now to be on the other side of it as an adult and as a coach," Morris said. "It is fun for me."
Columbus will take on Caledonia, which is coached by former Columbus High coach Gary Griffin, at 8 p.m. Friday and New Hope at 8 p.m. Saturday. Those games are the last games each day. West Lowndes (girls) and Starkville (girls and boys) will add to the local flavor in the event that typically packs the school's gym.
Morris said Columbus (4-6) is in the "middle of the road." Due to the team's overall youth, Morris said his team has tended to take one step forward and one step back. He said close games against West Lowndes, Starkville, and Noxubee County of late are showing the Falcons what they can and can't do to win.
On top of the youth, Morris said Columbus has dealt with injuries and sickness, which has forced him to shuffle lineups. Through it all, he said he continues to learn as a coach and to understand what situations he can put players in to help maximize the team's chances.
"I think we are tuning on up," Morris said. "I think these games this weekend will be a good test for us. Caledonia has a good team. They have been playing really well. They have a few guys from here who transferred over there. ... New Hope will be another emotional game because the kids are all right here in town and they know each other. There has been a lot of talk. It is going to fun for us."
Morris said he will try to make sure the West Lowndes boys will complete the set of public schools from Lowndes County for next year's lineup.
The Columbus High girls (9-0), the No. 1 team in the state, will have two tests against Horn Lake at 5 p.m. Friday and Olive Branch at 5 p.m. Saturday. Both of those opponents have been two of the top teams in the state of Mississippi for the last several years.
"If you want to be the best you have to beat the best," Hairston said. "Horn Lake is one of the better teams in the state, as well as Olive Branch. We're excited to be listed among those teams."
But Columbus has made strides to catch them this season thanks to a start that includes a victory at Canton, two wins against Starkville, and a victory against Jackson Murrah at the JPS Thanksgiving Classic. Senior Hannah White leads the Lady Falcons, but Hairston said her team has received contributions from a lot of players in the fast start. She is eager to see how her squad responds against two perennial powers on back-to-back days.
"It is some good competition for us," Hairston said. "Everybody is trying to knock us off. We have an 'X' on our back. It's great for us to see the different competition, and we have seen a lot of matchups -- box-and-one, triangle, man-to-man, 3-2, all of it -- and it is really challenging us before we go into district play after Christmas."
Hairston said it is an honor to be considered one of the best teams in the state. She said she and her players are enjoying the journey and working hard to uphold that honor.
"We have been able to win some ballgames that last year we probably would have lost, but we are learning how to finish some games now," Hairston said. She said the team's experience -- there are six seniors on the varsity roster -- has helped the Lady Falcons take another step. "Our motto is if you score 50 we can score 51. We just feel like we can outscore you. It doesn't matter how we win just as long as we get the win."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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