It’s spring break this week at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, but that’s not why Jesse Smith, the school’s president, says, “We’re walking around in rarefied air down here at the moment.”
No, here’s why:
• The men’s basketball team, coached by former Ole Miss standout Rahim Lockhart, has won 28 games, lost one. The Bobcats have won the state and regional tournaments and are headed to the national juco tournament at Hutchison, Kan.
• The women’s basketball team, coached by Missy Bilberback, has achieved the same 28-1 record, won state and regional championships and will next play in the national juco tournament at Lubbock, Texas.
• The Jones baseball team, defending national champions, is off to an 18-0 start and ranked No. 1 in the nation.
• The Jones softball team is off to a 18-0 start and also ranked No. 1 in the land.
So, if you are keeping score (and this is sports so you are), those four Jones teams, all still playing, have won 92 games and lost two. And that’s not all. The women’s soccer team was 15-2 and did not lose to a Mississippi team. They outscored opponents 94-15. They outscored Mississippi teams 90-6.
The football team finished 6-3. Men’s soccer made the state semifinals. No Jones athletic team this school year has experienced a losing record.
Ellisville, named for U.S. senator and federal judge Powhatan Ellis, a descendent of Pocahontas, should be renamed Winnersville. Jones Junior College almost never loses. At anything.
“It starts at the top with our president,” Lockhart says. “He’s the kind of leader who wants all the programs here – not just athletics, but band and academic programs – to be great. He expects greatness and at the same time gives you the support, facilities and wherewithal to achieve that greatness.”
Greatness? Lockhart’s team has scored 93.3 points per game and allowed only 59.9. They start running and pressing from the time they get off the bus.
“We’re at least two deep at every position,” Lockhart says. “We substitute a lot and that’s why we can play so fast all the time. This is a very special group.”
Three Bobcats have signed Division I scholarships. Several more are being actively recruited.
Lockhart took over for Jay Ladner, who parleyed a national championship at Jones in 2014 into a head coaching job at Southeastern Louisiana.
Bilberback, daughter of long-time successful high school football coach Perry Wheat, came to Jones from Presbyterian Chrisian in nearby Hattiesburg, where she had become a highly successful high school coach. Her team plays at a fast pace, too, scoring 83 points a game while allowing only 53.
“Great players,” she answers, when asked about her team’s success. “We have a special group of high-character athletes, who work really hard.”
Bilberback and Lockhart, as all Jones coaches, teach a leadership class to Jones athletes. The leadership class incorporates life skills, study skills and leadership skills.
Says Katie Herrington, the school’s athletic director, “We expect our student-athletes to do more than play hard. We expect them to do all the little things right. We are challenging all our coaches to have a 100 percent graduation rate.”
Last year, Jones women’s sports did achieve a 100 percent grad rate. There were 22 sophomores competing and all 22 graduated. Men graduated at a 74 percent rate and had a 94 percent rate of either graduating or transferring to a four-year school. Overall, 96 percent of Jones athletes last year either graduated or transferred to a four-year school. Hard to say what is more impressive: the academic success rate or the phenomenal winning percentage.
“I can’t say enough about our coaching staff and the job they have done recruiting, coaching and being role models,” Herrington, the athletic director, says. “We definitely have the right people in the right places at the right time.”
The proof is in the record, on the fields, on the courts and in the classroom.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at email@example.com.
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