Year in Review: 2020 Sports in the Pine Belt

Published: Dec. 31, 2020 at 7:19 PM CST
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - A year unlike any other began just like every other in the Pine Belt – Sacred Heart’s two soccer clubs competing for state championships.

Joe Falla’s boys claimed their second straight title while the Lady Crusaders lost for the first time in five years. However, they took that disappointment to the basketball court where Matt O’Keefe led the girls basketball team to their first semifinal berth.

Bay Springs, Laurel and the North Forrest boys joined them at the “Big House” but no one came away with the coveted gold ball.

The high-flying Pearl River Wildcats looked well on their way to winning the NJCAA basketball national championship - a program-best 28 wins and the first Mississippi program awarded the No. 1 overall seed.

Then COVID-19 came knocking.

“You can’t help but be disappointed or feel bad for the sophomores,” said PRCC head coach Chris Oney. “To all the kids we were recruiting, this is the dream we told them about.”

It didn’t just halt PRCC’s pursuit of perfection. The Jones College Lady Bobcats’ promising season came to an abrupt end.

As did the baseball seasons of William Carey, Jones, PRCC and Southern Miss. Scott Berry had a young crew just finding its groove at 12-4.

“It’s really unfortunate but I have to trust and we all have to trust the decisions and the information that’s been given to make these decisions are in the best interest of everybody and I think that’s what we have to look at,” Berry said.

College athletes had the option of returning for another season, but all the high schoolers around the Pine Belt did not.

So ensued a slow, sleepy spring without sports. The summer brought about upstart baseball leagues, a nice relief from an otherwise boring few months.

With patience, and a handful of differing opinions, football came just the same. Despite the masks, smaller crowds and flimsy schedules – when the ball was hiked, the game returned as we all remembered it.

Though for Southern Miss, it was a treacherous journey.

Jay Hopson stepped down just one game into his fifth season, opening the door for the “Energizer Bunny” Scotty Walden to coach in the interim. He delivered one win before bolting for Austin Peay, leaving a program in disarray to the hands of Tim Billings.

And a Yeoman’s job Billings did navigating the rockiest of waters, leading the Golden Eagles to two victories including the season finale at the Rock.

“I’m just so proud of these men, I’m so proud of this coaching staff,” Billings said. “It was a great way to leave this place. I have a soft spot in my heart for Southern Miss.”

Not three days before the season came to an end, athletic director Jeremy McClain introduced his most important hire – Mississippi-born Will Hall, the school’s 22nd head football coach.

A loud, proud offensive-minded coach with roots in this state deeper than the Magnolia trees.

“No more excuses,” Hall said. “We’ve got all the resources here to be special. We’ve got everything we need to get back to being the best football group of 5 school in the United States of America. But guys, we’ve got to band together.”

Less than a week into the job, Hall brought aboard ten Mississippians, several of which won state crowns in an epic finale to the high school season.

Six Pine Belt teams traveled to Jackson the first week of December, five left with gold balls. And when thinking about how 2020 started, it truly was a remarkable finish.

No, we’re not going to guess what’s in store for 2021 – we’ll let that game play out.

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