Okolona coach Arteria Clifton holds the treasured Gold Ball trophy aloft as his Chieftains celebrate a state championship. Credit: Keith Warren, MHSAA

Back in the sometimes good old days, Mississippi’s high school basketball season ended with a tournament of champions. The champions of all different classifications, girls and boys, played one more tournament until one overall champion was crowned.

Rick Cleveland

We called it the Grand Slam and sometimes it really was grand. There was always the potential for drama. Think the movie Hoosiers, in which small-town Hickory knocked off powerful South Bend Central. We had some of that in Mississippi, such as when little Potts Camp knocked off Starkville for the 1961 boys Grand Slam championship, or when Duck Hill’s girls beat Scott Central to complete the 1979 Grand Slam.

But apparently it wasn’t grand enough. Most times, Goliath slaughtered David instead of the other way around. There really wasn’t much drama at all most years.

According to Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) records, the Grand Slam ran from 1951 until it was first discontinued in 1983. It was re-started in 2006 but ended four years later. The last four boys winners were Lanier, Provine, Callaway and Starkville.

There were no Hickorys.

This column is not to suggest that we re-start the Grand Slam. These kids play enough hoops. Most of the champions will have played more than 30 games.

But this column will suggest that if we were going to do it again, this would have been the year to start. This would have been the year when we might have had a real life “Hickory” – maybe even two.

The State Class 1A championship games – for Mississippi’s smallest public high schools – were played Thursday afternoon. Hoosiers’ Gene Hackman would have been proud to coach either the boys or the girls. Tiny Pine Grove, from way up in Tippah County, won the girls crown, trouncing McAdams (of Sallis in Attala County) 56-34. Okolona, from just south of Tupelo, won the boys title, racing away from Ashland 80-59.

Now, I’m not saying either Pine Grove or Okolona would definitely win an overall tournament if there was one. I am saying the two tiny schools would be competitive with anyone. For that matter, Okolona has already defeated Class 6A Starkville, which will play Meridian for the 6A championship Saturday night.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Okolona doesn’t look anything like a Class 1A team. Indeed, they are bigger than most Jackson Public Schools teams. Coach Arteria Clifton’s team features beefy, 6-foot, 6-inch Ladarrius Spears and 6-7 Cameron Smith, who are joined by a a group of smaller, lightning quick athletes who can ever more run, jump and shoot the basketball.

They are dominant in 1A. They won in their region tournament by scores of 53-22 and 102-69. They won in North State by 104-41 and 87-55. They beat Wheeler 88-54 in the State semifinals. All things considered, Ashland played the Chieftains close, losing by only 21.

Okolona finished 30-2, losing by two points to a Starkville team the Chieftains also defeated by five and to Fayette Ware of Somerville, Tenn. Asked how he thought his team would fare against larger schools, Okolona coach Arteria Clifton answered matter-of-factly, “We could win 6A if we played in it.”

Pine Grove’s run through the 1A girls competition was quite similar. The 33-3 Lady Panthers whacked Jumpertown (63-35) and Blue Mountain (65-37) in region tournament play and then clocked Smithville 62-15 and Kennedy 80-24 in North State. They beat East Marion 62-35 in the State semifinals. As you can tell from those scores, the Lady Panthers play some defense, pressing all over the floor.

They are fundamentally as sound as can be. The five starters are all interchangeable, all between 5-7 and 5-11. All can handle the ball. All can shoot it. All defend as if their lives depend on it.

The Lady Panthers don’t lack for fans either. An estimated 750 fans – far more than the enrollment of the school – made the three and a half hour drive to Jackson. Nearly all wore bright red T-shirts and nearly all surely wore out their vocal cords.

“We don’t have any stars,” Coach Katie Bates, a former Lady Panther herself, said. “I tell the girls all the time they don’t have to do anything extraordinary, they just have to do the routine things extraordinarily well. That’s what they do. I am blessed.”

When an interviewer mentioned to Bates that it seemed that her girls are so fundamentally sound that it appears they have been playing basketball all their lives, she answered, “Well, they have. You know, there’s not much else to do in Pine Grove.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.