Saturday, April 30, 2011

Delta baseball teams struggle in MHSAA playoffs, hold 1-27 record

Two games into this year’s baseball season, Louis James’ best pitcher at Humphreys County High came to him with troubling news.
“He just said I don’t like (baseball),” remembered the veteran coach and former Jackson State baseball player.
Decisions like his, coupled with other factors, coaches say, have led to a baseball drought in the Mississippi Delta.
When the St. Joseph baseball team defeated Smithville 9-7 Saturday, it was a win not only for the Fighting Irish — but for the entire Delta.
It marked the first victory for a Delta team throughout the entire Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) playoffs.
Through two rounds of playoff baseball, Delta teams have amassed a 1-27 record and have been outscored 313-30 by their opponents. Thirteen of the 28 games ended in shutouts.
St. Joe’s nine runs Saturday were the most scored all postseason.
Student-athletes don’t want to be associated with a losing program, said Hollandale Simmons baseball coach Cortez Johnson. With winning comes interest from quality athletes, he said.
“Now that we’re winning in football,” said Johnson, “kids are more interested in that. Football and basketball — kids flock to those sports. The interest level (in baseball) has gone down a little bit.”
O’Bannon coach Torrione Carter agreed.
“The majority flock to basketball and football,” he said. “But it’s going to come back around sooner or later.”
Recently, Delta area teams have found it hard to compete against teams throughout other parts of the state. In this year’s playoffs, four teams failed to score a run throughout their respective series — including Ruleville who lost by a combined score of 36-0 in two games against Alcorn Central.
Most coaches surveyed say that a lack of resources for Delta teams play a part in the lopsided scores.
“We don’t have a batting cage or pitching machine, and my field is not in good shape,” said Johnson whose Hollandale Simmons fell to East Webster in the 2A playoffs. “I’m not trying to make excuses...but if you have 16-20 guys at batting practice (with no pitching machine) it’s going to take a long time, maybe 2 1/2 or three hours.”
Carter agrees that facilities play a major role, but the lack of feeder programs for older athletes also hurts.
“Feeder programs are the key to baseball,” he said. “When they come to high school, they know the game. All you have to do is polish it.”
The last team from the Delta to win a MHSAA baseball title was Cleveland in 2000.
Over at Drew High School, getting quality players isn’t the problem; it’s finding a coach. Last year, Eagles coach Lacy Wilson was the head coach for the football, boys basketball, baseball, track and junior high boys basketball teams.
This year, the school didn’t field a track or baseball team. Wilson said he just couldn’t handle the load.
“It got to a point,” said Wilson, “where the basketball season ran long. So when basketball ended, I was behind on baseball. I just feel sorry for the kids. They’re the ones that get hurt.”
Wilson also teaches seven physical education classes and is a bus driver for the school.
The 31-year veteran coach echoed other coaches’ statements that without a quality little league program, high school teams will continue to suffer.
“You have to start from scratch,” said Wilson. “And by the time you get them going, they’re seniors.”
And it’s not just the players who are unfamiliar with the game, said James. Little league coaches have a hard time teaching the ins and outs of baseball, he said.
“All they do is argue balls and strikes,” he said.
Added Johnson, “We don’t have enough adults interested in volunteering in coaching...If (coaches) don’t have interest to push kids, they’ll go off and do their own thing...”
Another reason Delta teams suffer, some say, is that most Delta schools who compete in the MHSAA are predominately black. And according to recent reports, African-Americans are leaving baseball at record rates.
According to ESPN, the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball dropped from 9.1 percent in 2010 to 8.5 in 2011 — the lowest level since 2007 when it stood at 8.2 percent.
“(Black) kids have to have some kind of sense that baseball is relevant,” said James. “They don’t see young black men playing baseball outside of high school.”
As a result, four-year college baseball programs seem to have gone outside the area to find players. This year, Mississippi Valley State is without any players with a Delta hometown. Freshman pitcher Cody Simpson, a Tunica Academy product, is the closest Delta Devil to fit the description. Over at Delta State, Leland’s Hunter Palasini is the lone Statesmen from the Delta.
“They go everywhere except the Delta,” said James.
St. Joseph, Riverside and Cleveland all had first-round bye’s in the playoffs this season. St. Joseph is the lone team remaining and will have to win one game Monday in Greenville to advance to the next round.
Those three teams, along with Simmons, are several Delta programs who consistently field winning teams. This year, Riverside won 20 games for the fourth straight season. But the Bulldogs were bounced from the playoffs after losing to Ripley 9-4 in game one and 9-0 Saturday in game two.
Despite all the problems surrounding baseball in the Delta, a brighter day may be ahead, said James.
“Winning cures all,” he said. “It opens a lot of eyes.”
As for Drew, Wilson said their baseball program's future is still up in the air.
Said Wilson, "I'm not sure yet about next year..... But I do know we need some help here."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hollandale native forced to regroup after college closes its doors

GREENVILLE — Just over two months ago, Jamarius Lyons talked about his excitement of joining the Lambuth University football team.
“It puts me closer to my father (who lives in Memphis),” the Hollandale native and former Mississippi Delta Community College defensive back said in February.
On Thursday evening, Lyons’ excitement was replaced with a mix of anger, reflection and confusion.
Lambuth, who he signed with after spending two years at MDCC, told its students Thursday it will shut down June 30 due to financial strains — leaving students dazed and “confused,” said Lyons.
The school, which is located in Jackson, Tenn., has also been in a legal battle over accreditation.
“I never knew they were having problems with accreditation,” Lyons said by phone after hearing the news of the school’s pending closure. “The coach (Ron Dickerson) never brought that up to me (during the recruitment process).”
The football team, Lyons said, will meet with coaches today to discuss transfer options for players. Amongst those interested in Lyons before he signed with Lambuth were North Carolina at Pembroke and Henderson State.
Lyons said he hopes something something comes through despite it being late in recruiting season.
“The coaches that offered me at first probably think I let them down,” he said. “....Now I have to start all over, and prove to coaches that I can play.”
School officials are currently searching for a school to take over the campus, according to Jackson Sun newspaper. However, athletics will most likely not return to Lambuth. All of the school’s spring sports, excluding softball, will finish off their 2011 schedule.
Meanwhile, Lyons is back on the recruiting board for potential schools.
Said Lyons, “I just hope it all works out.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Once-suspended sport golf makes return to GWHS; obstacles still remain

GREENVILLE — On this windy Wednesday afternoon at the Greenville Municipal Golf Course, Claude Courtney approaches one of his team’s 11 golfers.

“You know the hole isn’t that way, right,” the longtime Greenville-Weston golf coached joked, pointing in the opposite direction of where the ball landed.

In a way, that golf ball’s landing was a good thing. It’s a sign that the school still has a golf program.

Last summer, golf, along with five other sports, were suspended by the Greenville School District due to an $163,000 cut to the athletic budget. The sports, however, were saved after community volunteers raised $71,000.

Courtney, a retired teacher who started coaching the program over two decades ago at T.L. Weston, said his team took it hard when they first heard the news. He, however, stayed positive.

“It doesn’t take that much to keep golf going,” said Courtney. “I told them we’re going to play. I’ll just volunteer my time.” Courtney had to do exactly that until coaching supplements were recently approved.

But, with Greenville-Weston over one hurdle, another one stands in their way. This year, GWHS has just three matches — all at home, and all against St. Joseph. It would’ve been four against the same opponent, but their season-opening match on March 23 was cancelled due to rain.

“This is going to be a short season,” Courtney said.

Other programs in the area, including Indianola Gentry and Cleveland East Side, have dissolved — while smaller public schools don’t field golf teams. In recent years, Courtney said, the school has been unable to schedule a match with Cleveland High.

Their annual GWHS Invitational once included four or five teams. It, however, slowly declined, said Courtney. This year, most likely, it’ll just be two teams.

“Unless somebody else calls, it’ll be us and St. Joe,” he said.

Greenville-Weston’s golf team didn’t travel last year, and due to shaky finances, will play all their matches at the Greenville Municipal Golf Course again this season.

But it has been the Greenville community’s courtesy that has made sure the school still has a golf program. Recently, the team received new golf shirts from a local store, Sport Speciality, free of charge.

“We ordered the shirts two years ago, but didn’t have the money to get them,” said Courtney. “They called me and told me to come and pick them up.”

While Sport Speciality made sure the team had matching shirts, the community has donated golf clubs. The school last purchased clubs about four or five years ago, Courtney estimated, and his team still uses them today.

Diamond in the rough

Most of Greenville-Weston’s golfers, Courtney said, have never stepped foot on a golf course. But what they lack in talent, they make up with desire, he added.

“Once you put a club in their hands, show them how to grip it, and let them swing the club, they want to go further,” said Courtney. “They’re going to want to improve.”

While most of Greenville-Weston’s golfers participate to learn more about the sport, Jeron Collins is on a path that could one day lead him to a professional golfing career. The 15-year-old Solomon Middle School eighth grader has stood above the pack since he joined the team a couple years ago.

The news of the sport’s suspension last summer devastated the youngster, said his father, Curt Collins. But when the sports were re-instated it was a joyous occasion, he added.

“He was very excited,” said Collins. “He said, ‘Daddy, I have a chance to do what I wanna do now.’ “

The father and son picked up the sport four years ago after the elder Collins retired. Since then, Collins said he has taken his son to tournaments in Florida, Texas and Louisiana, among other places. The two even got a chance to play at the facility of Tiger Woods’ former coach, Hank Haney.

But it was a trip to a tournament in Jackson that opened Jeron’s eyes to what his future could hold, his father remembered.

“The first place check was for $658,000. That’s when he knew it was serious,” Curt Collins recollected.

Over the hump

Courtney remembers a time — in the 90s, he estimates — when the school once hosted district tournaments.

“We had teams out here from all over,” he remembered.

But with the decline of the sport in Delta public schools, scheduling has become difficult — and players remain scarce.

Like Greenville-Weston, St. Joseph will play just three matches this season — all against GWHS.  St. Joseph is a private school, but competes against public institutions in the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA).

“We used to play against Winona and in a Catholic school tournament in Vicksburg,” St. Joe golf coach Brian McGaugh recollected. “We don’t do that anymore.” There was a time when the Class 1A school played as many as 10 matches in a season, he said.

And finding athletes to play golf over other spring sports is difficult, added McGaugh, especially at a school of just 208 students.

“Everybody’s playing baseball,” said McGaugh, who also said that the economy and loss of area residents has also played a part.

According to the most recent numbers, Washington County lost 18.8 percent of its population in the last decade, from 62,977 residents in 2000 to 51,137 people in 2010.

Compared to teams in larger cities like Jackson, Delta golf squads are at a disadvantage, said Courtney.

“The golf course here is outside the city,” he said. “The courses in Jackson are in their backyard. All they have to do is jump the fence.”

Money is also an issue here in Washington County, where 48 percent of those under 18 live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.

“And if dad can’t afford to play,” said McGaugh, “the kid won’t be playing either.”

But golf is a sport, said Collins, for those who usually don’t play baseball, basketball or football. For other sports, he said, you need more players. For golf, the only requirements are only golf clubs, a location — and, of course, cash.

“It’s the only sport where you can play like they do it on TV,” said Collins.