MERIDIAN, Miss. (WTOK) - The first full week of March will see the crowning of boys and girls basketball state champions in the state tournament. However, many private schools have already earned those titles, including two teams across the twin states that both happen to have the Lady Rebels serve as their mascot.
The Leake Academy girls basketball program recently won their fourth MAIS AAA title in five years for fifth year coach Amanda Hatch. Hatch, who played under Doyle Wolverton at Leake Academy, took over an already storied program in 2014 and insisted on continuing its success.
“That rich tradition, you know, the love of the game from the girls that come through this school because I had that, you know, as a player here,” she said. “So just to continue that. Definitely wanted to keep up the success, wanted to keep up the love of the game.”
Part of the program’s success – which also includes state titles 11 of the last 14 years – might be attributed to the age in which students begin skills training, which is as early as fourth grade.
“They’re introduced to it at a young age and then they grow up watching the older girls,” Hatch said. “And so the pattern of working hard and dedication is established really early.”
Players grow up in the school system wanting to be a part of the winning tradition.
“All the kids, you know, like growing up – like everybody – they just all like, that’s what they do, they just play basketball and you just grow up playing it and everybody just loves it,” said senior point guard Molly Davis. “It’s got a great atmosphere here, all of the fans, you know, love it and it’s just fun to play in here.”
Leake Academy is not the only Lady Rebels program in the Twin States region with a track record of success and a passion for hoops. Across state lines, the South Choctaw Academy senior class of six recently accomplished something that had eluded them their high school careers: win the AISA Class AA championship. The past four years included two trips to the championship game and a final four berth but the Lady Rebels fell shy of their endgame.
“I’ve actually been to the state championship twice: my ninth and tenth grade year, went to the final four last year,” said senior center Faith Copeland. “So we’ve always been close to it.”
When the team finally did win on February 15th against Monroe, the victory was the ultimate prize for the players who had fallen short in the past.
“Knowing like where we came from – we’d been to that place so many times and we just hadn’t, like, succeeded, and finally doing it, it was just, it was the best,” said senior point guard Emily Phillips.
The title was the second for head coach Charlie Taylor and third overall. Taylor, who is in his fourth year back coaching the program, says that winning was in some ways bittersweet in that there were many other hardworking players that never got the opportunity to hoist that trophy.
“We’ve had a lot of girls that paved the way,” he said. “That’s probably the most emotional part for me as a coach when we won was the three years of girls that I failed.”
In a region so heavily entrenched in prep football, both programs are making their marks on the hardwood.