Integration leads to winning tradition for Oak Grove baseball

Integration leads to winning tradition for Oak Grove baseball

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - At a time when racial tension pulsed through our nation, the vibration didn't reach one place in the Pine Belt: Oak Grove High School's baseball program.

Mississippi schools' integration in 1970 resulted in Harry Breland, an African American teacher, being transferred to a predominantly white school. His arrival wouldn't cause a strain, it would unify a community and spark a winning tradition.

A tradition that Breland said would begin with a team prayer before each game.

"Teamwork. I am one, I am only one. I can not do everything but I can do some things. What I can do I ought to do, and by the grace of God I will do for my team, my teammates, my community, my school. One for one, all for all, God for us all. Warriors on the move," Breland said.

That prayer ignited the spirit of the Oak Grove Warriors baseball team when Breland lead the team for 37 years.

"I felt that we could do it,"  Breland said. "You got to believe."

Prayer and faith in his team were the catalysts for a journey that's now a legacy. At 74 years old years old, Breland strolled on the Oak Grove Baseball field that bears his name and stood under the sign displaying a tradition of winning, started by him.

"Nine state championships and over 800 wins," Breland said.

Before creating a championship culture, Breland's arrival at Oak Grove was the result of a change in culture, rippling across the nation.

"I came to Oak Grove [when]  I was 26 years old," Breland said.

In 1970, Mississippi public schools integrated. Breland was one of 32 teachers at all-black John Jefferson High School in Purvis. Breland said under government mandate, all 32 teachers were sent to white schools.

"They sent me to Oak Grove along with a couple of other teachers," Breland said.

When Breland recounted his first year at Oak Grove, he didn't use words like "racism" or "hate."

"I like to use the word different. I think life is all about making adjustments," Breland said. "I was blessed to be able to make some adjustments because of the young people and also because of some the administrators and teachers that were there. They were open to trying to help me make that move."

Breland taught American Government, P.E., and coached basketball. He said he started to truly enjoy his time at Oak Grove when he was asked to coach baseball, something he had never done before.

"I told them my experience was more into football and basketball," Breland said. "They said, 'That's alright. We want to start a baseball program. It's not doing that well, but we want to see if we can't make it grow.'"

Breland didn't just make it grow, he made it flourish. He broke through any racial barriers, leading an all white team to their first championship title in 1976, all while acting as a first time baseball coach. When you ask him what made it possible, he said love.

"I showed love to my players and they showed love back to me," he said. "I was able to build relationships. I built relationship with the kids."

His bond with each team led to 824 wins, 9 State championships, and a 1993 and 1994 team ranked first in the state. Breck Daniell played with the '93 and '94 championship team.

"He is a great motivator," Daniell said. "Phenomenal motivator, but he was a winner. I mean no matter how you look at it, he had a passion to win and he expected you to put in the effort to be a winner."

Daniell said the principals Breland instilled in him on the diamond have held true through out his life.

"If you put in the work in life and you do your part and you do things the right way, the right time consistently, you'll benefit. That's what he taught us and that is what happens in the real world," Daniell said.

Breland retired as coach of Oak Grove's baseball program in 2007, but he never left. He goes to every game, and he knows all the players. The Breland fundamentals of coaching are welcomed by a former rival player, mentee and his successor, Oak Grove's current baseball coach, Chris McCardle.

"He told me when I got here to make sure you build relationships, and that's what we plan to do," McCardle said. "Whenever I have a problem, I call Coach Breland. He gives you some advice, sometimes you may not agree, but most of the time he is right. The biggest thing is to love your players and build relationships with them and they will play for you."

Sound advice from an institution that has no plans of changing or leaving.