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Here’s the deal where Mississippi’s high school state basketball championships are concerned: Any sports writer worth a flip can walk into the coliseum, tear a page from his notebook, fold it into a paper airplane, sail it any direction, and wherever it lands, he or she can find a fascinating story.
Thursday afternoon, if that paper airplane landed at the feet of Cliff Little, the head coach of both the Biggersville High School Lions boys and girls basketball teams, the writer had a potential novel — or at least one heck of a screenplay.
First things first: Tiny Biggersville is located in Alcorn County, Hill Country, in the northeast corner of the state. Biggersville, named for its founder and not its size, is one of the smallest communities represented at Mississippi Coliseum. The town is not even populated enough to have its own ZIP code. But, boy oh boy (and girls), those Lions can ever more play basketball.
Before nightfall Thursday, Biggersville had won two state championships over a period of four hours. The Lions’ basketball-mad fans will take two shiny, gold ball trophies over a ZIP code and a stoplight any day.
First, the Biggersville girls erased an 11-point third quarter deficit to McEvans High of Shaw and won a thrilling, 56-53 victory for the Class 1A state championship. Then, after an abbreviated celebration with his girls and a short but emotional post-championship interview, a sweat-drenched, teary-eyed Little returned to the floor to coach his boys to a hard-fought 45-37 victory over H.W. Byers High of Holly Springs.
Hard to say whose celebration was wilder, the girls or the boys. I’m going to give a slight edge to the girls, probably because this was Biggersville’s first-ever girls state championship. Little’s boys have now won three in the last 10 years and Thursday made two straight. Believe this: At least 400 or so fans made the nearly four-hour drive to Jackson, and they commenced to scream themselves hoarse. And then they screamed more.
Someone asked Dylan Rousey, one of the boys team’s standouts, how many people were left in Biggersville Thursday. He thought for a couple seconds, smiled and answered, “I’m guessing nobody.”
That’s the way it goes in this tournament where, annually, dreams are lived and dashed in equal measure. When this week has ended, there will have been 36 games played, 24 in the semifinals and 12 championship games, nearly all the sports equivalents of a passion play — so much ecstasy and so much agony.
Little, the 43-year-old Biggersville coach, knows this tournament well. An Alcorn County native, he has been been coming to the state tournament every year since the age of 5. Both of his parents played ball. So did he. “I love basketball,” he said. “And what I love most is this tournament. It just matters so much.”
This guy can coach. His teams play sound, disciplined basketball. And they play as if they are playing for their mothers’ lives. Said Rousey, “In my mind, he’s the best coach in the state. He has to be to coach two teams at once and then to win win like he does. I don’t know how he does all he does. I’m just glad he does.”
Little will tell you he can do it because he has a lot of help and support. He has two assistant coaches. One is Tracy Stafford, his right-hand man. The other is Jana Little, his wife. And, boy, is there a story there.
Cliff and Jana Little met when he was coaching as an assistant at East Webster High in Maben. She was the scorekeeper. They dated, then married and then she became pregnant. In late February of 2007 East Webster’s girls won North State to qualify for the state tournament. Meanwhile, Jana, two months from her due date, was diagnosed with toxemia (pregnancy-induced hypertension).
“This could be really serious,” a doctor told them.
The Littles stayed behind while East Webster went and won the state semifinal game. On March 3, 2007, Jana gave birth to a one-pound, 15-ounce girl. They named her Lainey Jackson Little. Jackson? That’s where they had planned to be that night. That’s the place they loved to go every March. They called her Lainey Jack.
“You should have seen her,” Cliff Little said. “She would have fit in the palm of my hand.”
The prognosis was grim. Doctors said it could go either way. Lainey Jack spent the first six weeks of her life in the hospital.
Did we say this tournament is all about agony and ecstasy? Cliff Little knows both sides. The only time Cliff left the hospital during that six-week stay was for East Webster’s championship loss. Now, that’s agony. A year later, in 2008, the first basketball game Lainey Jack ever attended was when her daddy’s East Webster boys team beat Durant for the state championship. Now, that’s ecstasy.
Skip ahead four years to 2012, when Cliff Little coached the Biggersville girls to the state championship game with five-year old Lainey Jack seated nearby on the bench. Biggersville lost to Coldwater that day, a defeat Cliff was able to better put into perspective when his daughter skipped up and hugged his leg during his postgame interview.
Back to the present: Thursday presented the Little family with a double dose of ecstasy. And here’s what made it even better. Down the bench from Cliff and Jana Little, sat Lainey Jackson Little, now an eighth grader already playing for the Biggersville varsity. She didn’t play Thursday but she did play in the Lions’ semifinal victory. And she has four more years.
A reporter asked Cliff Little what it meant to share such a remarkable moment with both his wife and his daughter beside him.
Little began to answer and then he couldn’t. His voice shook. His eyes moistened. He didn’t need to finish.
We already knew.
And, besides, he had another game to coach — another championship to win.