Bassfield Yellowjackets are no more, but there’s a new tradition in south Mississippi

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Rick Cleveland

The Jefferson Davis County Jaguars listen to Coach Lance Mancuso before a recent practice.

BASSFIELD – The Bassfield Yellowjackets, surely one of Mississippi’s all-time most successful high school football teams, are gone forever. But if you need a reminder of just how good – how blazing fast – those Yellowjackets were, turn on your TV on a college football Saturday.

That’s what Lance Mancuso, coach at Jefferson Davis County High School, did on the first weekend of college football season.

“On Thursday night, I watched Ohio State play Indiana in a nationally televised game on ESPN,” Mancuso said. “Jerome Johnson, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, started and played really well for Indiana. He’s from little, ol’ Bassfield.”

Mancuso was just getting started …

“So then, Saturday afternoon, I turn on Southern Miss and Kentucky,” he continues. “Southern Miss has four starters on defense from Bassfield. Unbelievable! Four starters from this one little, bitty town.”

Rick Cleveland

Curtis Mikell and Cornell Armstrong are USM’s starting cornerbacks. Jomez Applewhite starts at rover. Rakeem Boothe starts at linbeacker. What’s more, T’Rod Daniels, probably the fastest of them all, returns kicks and is a backup running back.

That night, Mancuso flipped to Ole Miss-South Alabama. For Ole Miss, former Bassfield stars A.J. Moore started at rover, C.J. Moore at safety. When Mancuso clicked his remote to watch Mississippi State, there was Jamal Peters, a former high school All American at Bassfield, lined up at cornerback.

“I mean, can you believe that?” Mancuso says. “That’s – what? – nine Division I guys playing on TV on opening weekend from this place. It made my heart burst with pride. I’m so proud of these guys and their families, living the dream, getting a first-class education, playing the sport they love and playing it well. You couldn’t make this up.”

No, you couldn’t. Plus James Graves, starting middle linebacker at Central Arkansas, played that same day against Kansas State. Other former Yellowjackets play at small colleges and junior colleges around the state and region. Sometimes, it’s hard for even Mancuso to keep up with them all.

Plus, he’s plenty busy otherwise. On that Friday night, in between watching all the college football, Mancuso’s Class 3A Jefferson Davis County Jaguars went to traditional Class 5A powerhouse Wayne County and won 48-34. Despite losing nine starters to injuries in the early parts of the season, the Jeff Davis Jags are 5-1 headed into a Friday night showdown with Tylertown.

“If we ever get all our players back, we’ve got a chance to be a really special football team,” Mancuso says.

Former arch-rivals Bassfield and Prentiss have consolidated to form Jefferson Davis County High, located, for now, at the former Bassfield High School. A new high school, to be located in between Prentiss and Bassfield, is in the works. The potential has to be more than a little scary for those the new school will play.

Says Mancuso, “For whatever reason, and I don’t understand the genetics of it, Bassfield players are traditionally sort of smaller in stature, lean and really, really fast. Prentiss athletes, traditionally, are taller, more beefy. I kind of like the combination. Like I say, if we can ever get healthy …”

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Bassfield, named for the Bass family who once owned most of the land around here, had 315 citizens at the time of the 2000 census. By 2015, that number was down to just a few more than 200. Quite obviously, for whatever reason, a remarkable percentage of them can really run and can really play football.

My question: Why? How is that such a small community produces such a huge share of Mississippi football talent?

Rick Cleveland

Coach Lance Mancuso stands before the plaque honoring late Bassfield coach Howard Willoughby at the north end of Howard Willoughby Field.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was just starting to cover high school football games, all-white Bassfield High football teams were mauling people in the old Apache Conference.

They were the sons, I was told, of pulpwood haulers – tough, wiry and fearless. Years later, the legendary Howard Willoughby coached integrated Bassfield teams to state championships, playing old-fashioned Wing-T football, mixing speed, grit and precision to beat nearly all comers.

The consolidated Jefferson Davis Jaguars – at a school that is now 96 percent African American – still play at Howard Willoughby Field. And they still mix speed, grit and precision under Mancuso, who won four straight (2012-2015) Class 2A state championships. Mancuso still runs Willoughby’s Wing T offense.

Before Mancuso came over from Seminary in 2009, Bassfield football had sort of drifted away from the Willoughby system. They were running the spread offense, throwing the ball more. That wasn’t Mancuso’s style. Under Mancuso, Bassfield football went back to basics.

It helped that many of the fathers of Mancuso’s players once played for Willoughby. What Mancuso teaches – and stresses – on the practice field gets re-enforced at home.

But that still doesn’t explain so many Division I football standouts coming from one small, rural town.

“Like I say, I can’t explain the genetics of it,” Mancuso says. “But I can tell you that these young men know they are a part of a great tradition that goes way back. And I can tell you they live in a blue-collar, working environment. A lot of these kids work on farms and in the watermelon fields in the summer. When they have free time, there’s not a lot to do except go out in the yard and play ball.

“They have a passion and a drive about them. This is all they know. Unless, you are here, it’s hard to explain. In my opinion, this is one of a few places that the outside world has not discouraged the small-town dream. And it gets re-enforced all the time, by their parents, by former players coming back.”

Mancuso points to Howard Willoughby Field. “You come by here any Saturday morning in the summer, it’s like a Division I football clinic going on out there. We’ve got our former players coming back and working out with the guys who are playing now and the guys who will be playing next. They are proud of what we’ve got going here, and it’s been going a long time.”

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Rick Cleveland

Malik Shorts can’t wait to get back on the field.

Seventeen-year-old senior Malik Shorts, a 6-foot, 184-pound defensive safety, who plays all skill positions on offense, typifies the Bassfield tradition. His dad James Shorts, Jr., played for Willoughby. Before that, his granddad, James Short, Sr., was a football standout, too.

Shorts, who has committed to play at Southern Miss, has been watching Bassfield football since he can remember anything at all. At home, he has heard his father talk of the Bassfield tradition and of what it meant to play for Howard Willoughby and the state championships that came with it.

He watched all those current D-1 guys practice and play when he was growing up and served as a team manager.

“I saw how much effort and how much work those guys put into it,” Malik Shorts says. “I saw them work in the weight room and on the field. They never quit working. I wanted to be like them – that was my goal, to be just like them.”

Shorts currently is sidelined with an ankle injury – one of nine starters who has missed playing time – and Tuesday was limping around practice in a walking boot. He will undergo an MRI Saturday and hopes he gets news early next week that he can get back on the field. He says Prentiss and Bassfield players have successfully meshed into a united team, a team that has won five of its first six, despite injuries and often playing up a classification or two.

“These Prentiss guys were our big rivals but now we are on the same team,” Shorts says. “They bring a lot to the table. They add some size we didn’t have before. Now, we’re mixing our speed with their size.

“It’s like a whole, new tradition.”