2021 was filled with plenty of memorable sporting moments for area athletes

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, December 29, 2021

As I type these words, I’m in the living room trying to soak up a little more time with the tree up and the lights twinkling — all while the air conditioner blasts cold air and a mosquito buzzes around the room.

The finishing touches have been put on the final stories of 2021, specifically the All-Area football honors of Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and MVP, which will be published later this week.

The end of the calendar year is always a time of reflection and a good chance to think about the best local sports moments from the previous 365 days.

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Loyd Star baseball gave everyone something to cheer about

The fences that ring Smith Field on the campus of Loyd Star were packed with watchers in late May. The crowd was dotted with representatives from every school in the area. Fans and athletes from Loyd Star’s rivals had come to cheer for the LS baseball team in the MHSAA 2A South State Championship series.

On paper, the visiting Taylorsville Tartars were the favorites that day. The team from Smith County had multiple players pledged to high level Division I programs, while Loyd Star was a team with only two senior starters that had come within one strike of having their season ended in the prior round against Puckett.

Loyd Star won that elimination game 13-12 over Puckett on a Blake Thornton RBI single and the Taylorsville matchup saw a loose, confident group of Hornets led by coach Jared Britt hosting THS in the opening game of the series.

Those in attendance won’t soon forget the gem that senior pitcher Wyatt Hodges threw against a dangerous Taylorsville lineup in game one. Now a freshman at Co-Lin, Hodges struck out 14, gave up three hits and pitched the game of his life in his final time to take the mound for the Hornets.

Taylorsville won game two 17-0, setting up the winner-takes-all matchup back at Loyd Star. An early lead by the Hornets in the finale didn’t hold up though as THS came back for a 9-7 win.

The 2A championship trophy was won the following week by Taylorsville as the Tartars cruised to a title with 5-1 and 8-0 wins over East Union. It was apparent to anyone who saw that series, Loyd Star was the second best 2A team in the state — by just the smallest of margins.

The atmosphere for the Taylorsville series couldn’t have been better. The fans were living and dying with each pitch and the energy in the ballpark felt nearly tangible, like you could reach out and touch it.

When Hodges struck out the final batter of an inning and turned towards the Loyd Star dugout while the crowd erupted — when he walked towards his teammates that were all sporting hair that was freshly dyed blonde — that’s the type of moment that many athletes or fans or schools or programs may never experience.

Volleyball now in play for more area schools

With slow-pitch softball no longer being offered by schools in the Mississippi High Schools Activities Associations (MHSAA), 2021 was a year of growth for volleyball in southwest Mississippi.

Brookhaven High and Wesson fielded volleyball teams for the first time in school history as the sport sits in the late summer/early fall on the MHSAA calendar.

Wesson was in the hunt for a playoff birth in its first season competing and Lawrence County High had similarly strong results in the second season of volleyball there.

The senior girls at Brookhaven High who took a chance on playing a sport for the first time in their final year of high school — Jaide Prather, Kortne Nelson and De’naejah Williams —are good examples of making the most of your time as a teenager.

Across the board they all knew that there would be a steep learning curve as BHS faced division foes from Florence, Vicksburg and Forest Hill — schools that have all been playing volleyball for a number of years now.

The senior leaders from BHS wanted to help start the program not for their own individual gains, but to be able to look back years later and know they had a hand in growing a game that gives more girls at the school a chance to play and compete on a team of their own.

BA Lady Cougars reign as MAIS 5A softball champs

Everything was perfect in early Oct. when Brookhaven Academy faced Silliman Institute in the third and final game of the MAIS 5A Softball Championship series.

The weather was sunny and beautiful, the ballpark was filled with devoted fans and the results were a 9-5 win for the Lady Cougars — giving BA the first fastpitch state title in school history.

The Lady Cougars came into the season as favorites as they boasted four seniors that were already committed to play softball collegiately.

Coach Becky Flower’s team finished the season with a 32-6-1 record. Three of those losses were to Silliman — a district rival that BA ended up playing eight times in 2021.

The talent that the Lady Cougars trotted out night after night checked off all the boxes if you were looking to build a team from the ground up.

Senior Abby Grace Richardson provided the power in the lineup as she hit 19 homeruns on the season. Fellow senior Emily Claire Felder was an absolute workhorse in the circle as she earned MAIS 5A Player of the Year honors by posting a 28-5 pitching record.

The team had speed to burn in senior centerfielder Madison Moak who tracked down fly balls from foul-pole to foul-pole. Every great team needs some grit, right — senior infielder Bailee Goodson is tougher than a $2 steak and was a versatile leader on the team in all facets.

Those four didn’t do it alone though, the rest of the team was made up of younger players — many of them in junior high — who only got better and more confident as the season went on.

The team seemed like one of destiny and the title felt nearly preordained as the Lady Cougars lived up to some lofty expectations on the way to becoming champs.

Cross-Country Panthers run from the front all season

The Brookhaven High boy’s cross-country came into the 2021 season with the type of confidence that comes from being a championship program. Coach Shannon Knott’s team already had won the MHSAA 5A Championship the preceding two years and the quest for a 3-peat would be led by a group of five seniors that were the bedrock of the program.

That senior quintet of Sam Arnold, Grayson Childress, Collin Kellum, Trey Knott and Jake Thompson lived up to the hype and then some. They opened the season with a run on the BHS home course at the Hansel King Sports Complex in the Ole Brook Invitational.

All five seniors ran personal best times that day in leading the team to a title. The Panthers went on to win team titles at Choctaw Trails in west Jackson and at Northwest Rankin High School and at Saltillo High School and at Madison Central. They were unbeaten against in-state competition all season.

The payoff came in early Nov. when the Panthers dominated the 5A championship meet at Choctaw Trails as Childress won first place and was followed by his teammates Arnold, Thompson and Knott in second, third and fourth places respectively.

The BHS girls finished second at the state meet and the future of that program appears to be very bright as well.

Not seeing Arnold, Childress, Kellum, Knott and Thompson completing their training runs through the streets of Brookhaven will take some getting used to next year when the fivesome have moved on to college.

Together they ran thousands of miles, filled a case full of trophies and staked their claim as one of the greatest cross-country teams in state history.

Football Friday nights delivered lots of memorable moments

The first Friday of high school football in the area set the tone for the type of games this writer would get to witness in 2021.

Loyd Star and visiting St. Andrew’s were locked in a 20-20 tie after four quarters and the Saints had kicked a field goal to go up in overtime.

Hornet quarterback Carter Holcomb hit Versie Wilson on a passing play to give Loyd Star an apparent win. The score was nullified on a penalty though and Loyd Star was moved back for one final play. Holcomb again rolled out and found Bryce Ford in the back of the endzone for the game-winning score.

It was a great game, and the late finish was the type that had me wondering, how am I going to properly convey just how awesome this was and still make our deadline.

The game was a precursor to the type of season Loyd Star would have as coach Brian Ford’s team finished 9-2 on the year and won Region 7-2A.

The last game I saw in person was a playoff game on King Field between Brookhaven High and East Central. It was the first home playoff game for the Panthers since 2017 and coach Tucker Peavey’s team didn’t disappoint as they won 42-14 over the Hornets from Hurley.

Between those two games, I saw some great moments — but there were other wins that I didn’t witness but still meant a lot to the fans from those schools.

One of those games was Enterprise going on the road and winning 52-38 at Lumberton. The Panthers were the defending 1A state champions and have a tradition as being one of all-time great small-school programs in the state.

Enterprise and coach Trey Woodard got 279 combined yards, two passing touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns from senior quarterback Matthew Burns to earn the type of victory that’ll help propel a young Yellow Jacket team into an offseason of hard work towards further improvement in 2022.

Wesson over Crystal Springs is another one that I’d have loved to have seen myself. The Tigers had a four-star defensive lineman in Trevion Williams — a recent Mississippi State signee. The Cobras offense sprung plenty of big plays though in getting a 48-32 win.

Junior quarterback Will Loy threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns while sophomore running back Zevante Stapleton picked up 102 yards on the ground and added two scores of his own.

The win helped put coach Jeremy Loy’s Wesson team back into the 3A playoffs for the first time since 2014.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though on my viewing schedule. Twice I saw West Lincoln have what looked like sure wins snatched away late on Perry Miller Field to East Rankin Academy (20-14) and St. Andrew’s (21-19) respectively.

The look of shock that comes when a team has fought and tackled and blocked and run as hard as possible for 48 minutes — to only come up one play or maybe even a few yards short of victory — it’s part of the human condition. A reaction that binds everyone in that same situation, regardless of what school they play for.

It’s especially magnified when that loss is a season-ender or a career-ender for the seniors on the team.

The final game of the season at Brookhaven Academy — an MAIS 4A quarterfinal matchup with Kirk Academy — was one of those such games, the heartbreakers.

Kirk had jumped out to a big lead early, but Brookhaven Academy rallied behind senior quarterback Tyler Fortenberry.

Fortenberry made some big throws and hard runs to get the Cougars even at 38-38 after four quarters.

The Raiders scored quickly to go up in OT and the Cougars then got their four chances from the 10-yard line to extend the game to another period.

The Kirk defense bowed up though and turned back BA near the goal line to end the season for coach Anthony Hart’s team.

Drenched in sweat, covered in grass and utterly spent — Fortenberry sat down on the turf and cried. He was alone just for a second though, before his younger brother Trevor knelt down beside him.

Trevor tried to pull him to his feet but saw that his big brother wasn’t ready to stand up yet. Little brother then took up the role of protector, wrapping his right arm over his sibling’s shoulder pads — giving Tyler a shield behind Trevor’s own pads. A space for his big brother to regain his composure before rising back to his feet.

Nothing beats watching your own though

I’ve reached the age where the children of my classmates and peers aren’t just playing varsity sports — some of them are graduating, signing scholarships and nearing adulthood.

A little over a month ago I turned 40 and that doesn’t feel possible, because in my brain I’m still somewhere between 16-19-years old. I should be spending my Friday nights shooting basketball in the First Baptist Gym with Chad and Fitz or riding the Boulevard with plenty of stops in the K&B parking lot or going to a party around a bonfire in some field or cutover.

Instead, I’m grabbing my camera and notepad and going to watch the children of my friends play ball so I can write about it. And even as Madison Moak or Trenton Tarver graduate — kids that I’ve watched grow up — there comes a new crop right behind them that are also special to me.

There is a feeling of pride when Jax Leggett plays well at Bogue Chitto or when I know Ella Smith is going to be tearing up the varsity court very soon at BA.

There is real anticipation in my heart to one day look out at a Wesson High football game and see Wesley Loy playing for the Cobras. Wesley is a ball boy on Friday nights right now and if he plays linebacker with the same passion that he runs balls in and out to the referees — he’s going to be a monster.

My two kids are in fourth and seventh grades this year and as far as watching sports go, the most enjoyment I’ve experienced this year is seeing them play and compete.

Amelia ran cross-country this year and making sure she got up and ready for practice was a big part of our summer routine.

The light really clicked for her at one point early in the season and she saw that her work in practice wasn’t in vain as her times improved each weekend at the meets.

To see her happy and smiling after finishing, knowing that she was competing against herself just as much as she was competing against the other runners on the course — it made her parents very proud.

Learning about how to handle disappointment is another thing that sports reveals to us too, right? The last meet of the season for her and her junior high teammates was on Choctaw Trails and on an unseasonable warm Oct. day (anyone noticing a weather pattern here), she finished up her 2021 season striving to top her personal best on that course.

She didn’t reach that goal though. She sat down in the grass and shielded her face from the sun, sipping water and fighting back tears.

Her team finished third overall and one of teammates and friends won the race, so she shook off whatever blues she was feeling and was smiling 20 minutes later for pictures during the medal ceremony.

The kids — the ones that are actually competing and playing and winning or losing — they always seem to bounce back much quicker than us adults, don’t they.

My wife and I saw that two times a week with our son Graham, who played recreation league soccer for the first time in years. He wanted to play flag football, but when it didn’t make, he decided to roll with 10U soccer.

That’s a glimpse into his personality, he just rolls with whatever life hands him. When his coach put him at goalkeeper, he was game to try that out too.

It started out with him playing a half at the position, but he quickly became the fulltime keeper for his squad.

His momma and I would sit in our camping chairs and chew our fingernails twice a week while he faced down the opposing offense. He gave up goals and his team won some games and lost some games.

Above all else, he had fun, improved and put himself out there to play a game that he hadn’t tried in three or four years.

One Tuesday night his team was playing a squad that had his buddy Max on it. The other crew was good and Graham blocked shots with his hands, feet, knees and face that night.

I can’t remember the score or the date of that match or even who sponsored our orange clad team, but I do remember having way more fun watching my boy compete than that I’d ever had on any Tuesday night in my entire life prior to that.

Here’s a cheer to another year of watching yours and mine get all of the good that comes out of athletic competition — with as little of the bad as possible — in 2022.

Cliff Furr is the sports editor at The Daily Leader. He can be reached via email at sports@dailyleader.com.