Home - Breaking News, Events, Things-To-Do, Dining, Nightlife


Hill Country basketball: It’s like a religion, and everyone believes

When Hill Country teams come to Jackson, the townspeople follow, like these from Blue Mountain. (Photo by Keith Warren)

We can argue from now to next year about whether Mississippi is a football state, a basketball state, a baseball state — or, for that matter, any kind of sports state at all.

What we cannot argue is this: In northeast Mississippi, most often referred to as Hill Country, basketball is king.

Always has been. And, I would wager, always will be.

Rick Cleveland

Let’s take, for example, the recent Mississippi public schools state tournament that concluded over the weekend at the Mississippi Coliseum. Fourteen state champions in seven divisions were crowned. Eight were from up in the state’s northeast corner. The only time Hill Country teams lost was when they played each other.

A quick recounting: In Class 1A, the Blue Mountain girls and the Biggersville boys were winners. In Class 2A – stop me if you’ve heard this before – Ingomar swept both the boys and girls titles. In Class 3A, the Belmont girls and Booneville boys are champions, and the Booneville girls lost by one point to Belmont. In Class 4A, Tishomingo County’s girls easily won the crown, and in Class 7A, Tupelo’s girls won it all.

You will note that nearly all the Hill Country champions are from the MHSAA’s smaller divisions, and there’s a reason. For the most part, northeast Mississippi schools have just said “no” to consolidation. And that has a lot to do with basketball, or more specifically, with the pride the small towns and communities have in their basketball teams.

“Basketball is almost like a religion up there,” says MHSAA executive director Rickey Neaves, and he should know. Neaves played at Saltillo and coached, taught and was an administrator at Booneville. “That’s the way people are raised. It’s in their blood. There are basketball goals in every yard, every park and any place, really, that’s level enough to dribble a ball.”

Neaves knows because it is in his blood, too.

These words are written by a guy from Hattiesburg, nearly at the other end of the state. But they are also written by a guy who learned to read by reading the sports sections of daily newspapers, especially the scoreboard pages with all the scores and statistics in small print. And I can remember picking up the Jackson newspapers back in the 1950s when I was learning to read and being flabbergasted to see high school basketball scores in September and October. Schools from exotic-sounding places such as Jumpertown, Hickory Flat, Ingomar, Potts Camp, Wheeler, Baldwyn, Blue Mountain and West Union were already playing basketball. And it seemed as if they played every night. The 1956 Ingomar girls won the state championship and finished with a 54-0 record. Fifty-four and zero!

I remember asking my daddy about it, and his saying, “Those schools don’t play football, son. They don’t have enough students for a football team. They play basketball year-round.”

He showed me on a state map where those towns were and he told me this, too: “Those teams know how to play.”

For five decades now, I’ve watched those teams from tiny towns and communities make the three hours-plus drive down to the Big House, and to this day am still amazed at how many folks follow the yellow school buses to support their favorite team. Blue Mountain is a community of about 800, but there appeared at least 2,000 blue-clad fans yelling themselves hoarse at the championship game. 

“We get support from all over Tippah County,” Regina Chills, the Blue Mountain coach, said. “There were people from Ripley and Walnut here cheering for us.”

One strongly suspects there were also Blue Mountain ex-patriots who now live in other parts of Mississippi in attendance as well. Basketball pride and tradition runs deep in Hill Country.

Norris an d Jonathan Ashley after Ingomar’s 2020 State championship.

Take Ingomar, which won both the 2A titles. That makes 20 state championships total for Ingomar, 13 for the girls and seven for the boys. This one was particularly special in Ingomar, because Jonathan Ashley, son of Ingomar coaching legend Norris Ashley, won his second as a coach, his first in the Big House. Norris Ashley, whose 1978 team famously won the Overall State Championship (back when there was such a thing), representing the smallest classification. It was Hoosiers in Mississippi.

Norris Ashley, who died just over a year ago, won nine state titles and more than 1,700 games. His son learned from one of the best to ever do it by following his daddy’s teams to the Big House nearly ever year. Norris Ashley was like Hill Country deity. You think this year’s championship wasn’t extra special in Ingomar and in the Ashley family?

Excellent coaching has been the staple of Hill Country basketball. Ashley and others such as brothers Milton and Malcolm Kuykendall, Harvey Childers, Jimmy Guy McDonald, Gerald Caveness, Kermit Davis Sr., and, let us not forget, Baldwyn legend Babe McCarthy easily would have won elections for mayor in their towns. But then, why take a demotion?

The next generation of Hill Country coaches — folks such as Jonathan Ashley and Trent Adair at Ingomar, Cliff Little at Biggersville, and Mike Smith at Booneville — carry on the tradition. 

As Rickey Neaves put it, “Those coaches, in many cases, are the most respected people in their communities. You rarely see them leave. Why would they? The communities support them so well. The gyms are packed. The kids grow up wanting to play. That’s why good coaches gravitate to that area and stay there. Who wouldn’t want to coach basketball where basketball is so important?”

Who, indeed?

MHSAA State Championship results

Class 7A: Boys: Meridian 54, Clinton 50; Girls: Tupelo 47, Germantown 38

Class 6A: Boys: Olive Branch 59, Ridgeland 56; Girls; Neshoba Central 53, Terry 39

Class 5A: Boys: Canton 58, Yazoo City 40; Girls: Laurel 40, Canton 32

Class 4A: Boys: Raymond 53, McComb 28; Girls: Tishomingo County 37, Morton 17

Class 3A: Boys: Booneville 46, Coahoma County 43 (OT); Girls: Belmont 40, Booneville 39

Class 2A: Boys: Ingomar 48, Bogue Chitto 46; Ingomar 57, New Site 40

Class 1A: Boys: Biggersville 45, McAdams 41; Girls: Blue Mountain 38, Lumberton 36

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

Local Dining Stream

Things To Do

Related articles