Sports moments from the Pine Belt in 2021
PINE BELT, Miss. (WDAM) - It’s impossible to look back on all the big news in the Pine Belt without discussing the major sporting events.
Southern Miss Lady Eagles head basketball coach Joye Lee-McNelis was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in January, but not once did her spirit waver as she continued to coach the Lady Eagles and galvanize a community to be #McNelisStrong.
“I am faced with a storm. So, what do I do, do I let this storm engulf me? No, I can’t. I am at Southern Miss to help you in every aspect of your life. To learn that when you face storms, that you have to be able to fight and you got to rise above,” said McNelis.
She would later record her 500th career win in November.
Eight wins in year two for Jay Ladner as the USM men’s basketball team continues to find its footing.
Oak Grove basketball climbed to its highest peak in program history, falling in the 6A state title.
It was the Laurel Lady Tornadoes bringing hardware back to the Pine Belt, capturing their first state championship.
“It feels legendary. To be down in the history books, it feels good,” said Lady Tornadoes player Zoey Cooley.
Missy Bilderback and the Jones College Lady Bobcats reeled off 20 straight wins before suffering their first defeat at the national tournament. The men’s team welcomed Newton Mealer to Ellisville. He’s already got the Bobcats off and running at 10-0.
JC softball was the national runners-up for the fourth time in seven years.
The Taylorsville Tartars added a gold glove to the gold football they won back in December.
Bobby Halford’s 1,200th win at William Carey sparked a late-season run.
One of the strongest pitching staffs Scott Berry’s fielded at Southern Miss carried the Golden Eagles to a fifth straight NCAA postseason berth.
The Golden Eagles knocked off Florida State University and Ole Miss on an elimination Sunday to force winner-take-all Monday with the host Rebels. Ole Miss would win the slugfest, ending USM’s season at 40 wins.
“Watching this team mature and develop as the season went along was probably one of the better experiences that I’ve had as a head coach,” said Berry. “You want to be playing best baseball at the end of the year, and I think this club certainly was doing just that.”
Less than a month later, Mississippi State would capture their first College World Series for the Magnolia State.
Southern Miss soccer wins its first West Division title, falling a goal short of the C-USA crown.
The William Carey women won 22 straight before falling in the national title.
After 26 years in the Conference USA, the Golden Eagles joined the Sun Belt. They are expected to enter the league no later than 2023.
“The move allows us to join what I believe is one of the most competitive group of five conferences in the country,” said Southern Miss Athletic Director Jeremy McClain.
Jones College reeled off seven wins, rising to No. 1 in the JUCO rankings.
As for coach Will Hall’s first season as USM’s head football coach, it didn’t go according to plan. Injuries plagued the Golden Eagles, using eleven different players at quarterback.
Hall eventually adopted a “Super-Back” offense. USM was able to engineer two straight wins to finish the season 3-9.
“If you going to get us, you better have gotten us this year, and you better get us quick because there’s going to come a day where you ain’t going to be able to get us,” said Hall.
But as always, the Pine Belt spotlight is dominated by high school football.
Laurel claimed the 100th “Battle for the Lil’ Brown Jug,” but only three area teams could claim the title of state champion.
Bay Springs bulldozed its way to the school’s first title. Columbia wore the crown for the first time in 39 years, while regular-season customers Jefferson Davis grabbed gold ball number three since 2017.
As the echoes of cheers slowly faded from “The Rock,” so did another year of sports in the Pine Belt. We’ll just have to see what 2022 has in store.
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