New Site, an unincorporated community in the far, northeast corner of Mississippi, was settled in 1899 by a Virginia-born farmer named William Cicero Denson. The Civil War veteran stopped at a place about 20 miles west of the Alabama state line, about 20 miles south of the Tennessee line. Apparently, he was precisely where he wanted to be.
Denson wrote home to his loved ones: “I have found us a new site.”
And New Site it became. Still is. In the last census, it was home to 899 people, seemingly all of whom are passionate about basketball. Friday afternoon at Mississippi Coliseum — more than a three-hour drive from New Site — at least that many red-shirted New Site fans cheered their Lady Royals to a thrilling 55-50 victory over Calhoun City for the State Class 2A championship.
William Cicero Denson surely would have been proud. The New Site girls, mostly slightly built and with blonde ponytails, scrapped and shot their way past an outstanding Calhoun City team that had entered the championship match with a 25-1 record. This was terrific basketball — two well-coached teams, playing with precision, playing incredibly hard and playing well. New Site, 33-2, somehow prevailed.
Thus, still another Prentiss County team has earned still another state championship. You’d need a calculator to add them all up. Schools such as Booneville, Baldwyn, Jumpertown, Thrasher and Wheeler all have rich basketball histories that include many multiple championships. Kids there grow up bouncing basketballs. Few schools even field a football team, partly because many of the small schools don’t have enough boys and maybe because it’s hard to find a piece of Mississippi Hill Country 120 yards long and 50 yards wide flat enough on which to play the sport.
It is a rich piece of Mississippi basketball history that in 1969 the New Site boys, champions of Class B (the smallest division then), knocked off Jackson Wingfield of Class AA (largest) for the overall state championship. Hickory, Ind., and the movie “Hoosiers” has nothing on New Site, which once won five straight boys state titles in a row, causing one sports writer to ask a New Site fan if every yard in town had a basketball goal. Answered the gray-bearded fan, smiling, “Yeah, if it’s not in the living room.”
New Site coach Byron Sparks has been at the school for 19 years, long enough to know, “It’s a blessing to coach at a place where the people care so much about basketball.”
Just a few feet away from where Sparks was speaking, many red-clad fans were hugging players, smiling and laughing through tears. They lined up to get their photos made with the championship gold ball that will go into what already must be a crowded trophy case.
When a sports writer mentioned that his team was hardly physically imposing, he laughed and replied, “Yeah, but they will fight you for that basketball, won’t they?”
And they can handle and shoot that ball, too. The Royals made 7 of 16 3-point shots, often penetrating the lane and then dishing the ball out to an open shooter. Hannah Campbell, a senior and a four-year starter, made three of four treys, scored 19 points and pulled down six rebounds to win MVP honors. This was after she scored 31 to lead the Royals past Newton in Wednesday’s semifinals.
Campbell was a freshman in 2018 when the Royals made it to the state championship game only to lose a heartbreaker. Said Campbell, “We’ve waited a long, long time for this. This is the best feeling in the world. We played our hearts out.”
Campbell had plenty of help. Ivy Loden, listed at 5 feet, 4 inches but seeming shorter, scored 15 points and drove the lane for big bucket after big bucket in the fourth quarter. When Campbell missed a free throw late with New Site leading by only two, Loden somehow rebounded, was fouled and made two free throws to make it a four-point game with only 30 seconds remaining.
Junior Lily Whitley, the only non-senior in the lineup and the tallest Royal at 5-10, scored eight points and pulled down 13 rebounds despite suffering a hard fall and banging her head on the hardcourt in the third quarter. She was clearly woozy as she was helped off the court. But two minutes she was back out there, fighting for rebounds.
“I had to play,” she said. “Had to.” You could tell she meant it. To borrow from the SEC, in a Prentiss County place like New Site, it just means more. And that’s nothing new.