2023 Year in Review: Triumph, tragedy and change mark Warren County’s sports year

Published 4:05 am Saturday, December 30, 2023

Triumph, tragedy and change highlighted the 2023 sports year in Warren County.

Vicksburg’s high school athletes won championships, achieved milestones, and were recognized as some of the best in Mississippi.

The run of success began in February, when Vicksburg High basketball players Layla Carter and Malik Franklin were named Miss and Mr. Basketball, respectively, for Class 5A by the Mississippi High School Activities Association.

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The awards recognized the top boys and girls players in each of the MHSAA’s six classifications.

Carter signed with Southern Arkansas and Franklin with Jones College.

“I didn’t even know Mr. Basketball was a thing until I saw it on Facebook. I didn’t even know I was in the poll or anything,” Franklin said in March. “Nobody ever told me that. It was always you’re not good enough, or you’re not where you’re supposed to be. I took that as motivation to keep working. It’s a humbling sentence to make it.”

Warren County’s athletes continued their success through the spring, as Warren Central powerlifter Lane Gordon won the MHSAA Class 6A boys’ 132-pound championship in April for the second year in a row.

In college baseball, Warren Central alum Shane Lewis broke Troy’s single-season home run record and was named the Sun Belt Conference Player and Newcomer of the Year.

The sophomore outfielder led the Sun Belt with 28 home runs and a .722 slugging percentage, and was second with 79 RBIs.

In May, WC’s Jonathan Henderson won the Class 6A high jump championship and Vicksburg’s Tyler Henderson the Class 5A triple jump title at the MHSAA state track and field meet.

“It feels pretty good to know how hard I worked, and that nobody compared to me,” Tyler Henderson said.

The track state championship was the start of an outstanding year for Tyler Henderson. He was also selected as a Mississippi all-star during football season, when he was among a host of Warren County players who set records and achieved milestones.

Henderson, a wide receiver, caught 32 passes for 852 yards and 12 touchdowns. He finished his high school career ranked second on Warren County’s career receiving yardage list and fourth in touchdowns with 1,838 and 23, respectively.

Vicksburg quarterback Ronnie Alexander finished his four-year varsity career with 37 TD passes and 3,515 yards and running back Malik Montgomery was second in school history with 33 career rushing touchdowns. Montgomery signed with Mississippi Valley State in December.

Porter’s Chapel Academy’s football team, meanwhile, shattered more than a half-dozen records on the way to its first MAIS district title since 2008.

PCA quarterback John Wyatt Massey set Warren County records for touchdown passes in a game (7) and season (40), and the school record for career TD passes (53). He was one of six PCA players who were selected to the All-MAIS Class 2A team. Among them were running back Jase Jung, who set a school record with 25 rushing TDs; and receiver Thomas Azlin, who caught a school-record 16 TD passes.

“It means a lot. It really shows the work that was put in. The long work, the hard hours that everybody was up here putting in. It’s a team effort,” Massey said in December.

Warren Central’s football team also had an outstanding season. The Vikings finished with a 9-3 record and won their first MHSAA region championship since 2004.

The title-clinching victory, 27-20 over Callaway on Oct. 27, was the 100th for head coach Josh Morgan. He joined Warren Central’s Lum Wright Sr. and Robert Morgan — his father — and St. Aloysius’ Joe Balzli as the only coaches to achieve that feat at a Warren County high school.

Josh Morgan added two more wins before the end of the season and has a record of 102-66 in 14 seasons at Warren Central.

“The district championship, so proud of that. The 100th win is a tribute to all of the wonderful coaches and former players that we’ve had come through here,” Morgan said after the win over Callaway.

While Warren Central’s football season went well, it started on a very somber note when longtime assistant coach Chad McMullin died in July.

McMullin had been at Warren Central since 1998. In addition to his duties with the football team, he was the head coach of the powerlifting team; served as the head cross country coach and a junior high basketball and football coach at various times; and helped all of the school’s athletic programs with their strength and conditioning work.

“He’s touched a lot of lives through those different channels,” Morgan said in July. “He dedicated his life to not only this school, but this community and these kids. He was a mighty important figure.”

Another football team, Sharkey-Issaquena Academy, endured its own tragedy when Rolling Fork was hit by a powerful EF-4 tornado on March 24. Fourteen people in Sharkey County were killed, and dozens more injured. More than three-fourths of the buildings in Rolling Fork sustained some damage.

In the weeks and months after the storm, SIA’s gym was converted into a distribution center for relief supplies that its students helped man.

Then, in the fall, SIA provided some joy for the town by making a run to the MAIS Class 1A football championship. The Confederates finished with a 12-1 record, capped by a 32-26 victory over Calhoun Academy in the state championship game. Gary Jackson’s 35-yard touchdown run on the final play capped a comeback from a 20-0 halftime deficit.

SIA also won it all one season after finishing 2-8. It had to forfeit a playoff game in 2022 because of a lack of players.

“My hat is off to the kids, and the community for backing us and how great they are. You see this, and it’s an amazing thing, man,” SIA coach Matt Homan said after the win over Calhoun Academy, as dozens of fans came on the field to take pictures with his players. “It’s a Cinderella story, fairybook ending, you can’t write stories like that. It’s a great thing for the whole state. It’s a great thing for our area, our family, our friends, people at SIA, all the small towns, this is for them.”

2023 was also a year of change for Warren County’s high school coaches. Nearly a dozen head coaches in six sports moved on or stepped down. The list included all four softball coaches and two football coaches.

Vicksburg’s Todd McDaniel left in March to take over Ridgeland’s football program, and was replaced a month later by longtime assistant Christopher Lacey. In December, St. Aloysius relieved football head coach Bubba Nettles of his duties after two seasons. His successor has not yet been hired.

One big coaching change led to another among Warren County’s softball programs. Dana McGivney announced in April that she was leaving Warren Central after 16 seasons to become Oxford’s head coach.

McGivney had a 228-182 record as the Lady Vikes’ coach. She took over for another fixture at the school, Lucy Young, and between them they guided the slow- and fast-pitch programs for nearly 50 years.

“I always wanted to build on what she had built, because of what she had put into this program and what this program meant to her,” McGivney said in May. “For her to entrust me with that is a big responsibility. I hope that I have lived up to her expectations. I feel like we’ve done good things and continued to build on her legacy.”

McGivney’s successor was hired shortly after her final game, and had been a major rival. Brian Ellis, who coached Vicksburg High’s team since 2013, moved across town to Warren Central.

“It’s been a blur, because it’s been so fast. It’s just a lot of things that went into it. It’s the right thing for me and my family,” Ellis said in May, referring to his decision to leave VHS. “There’s a lot of pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy decision, but when it’s all said and done it was the right decision for me.”

Briana Knox, one of Ellis’ former players, was hired in August to replace him.

“I still get emotional a little bit, because who would’ve thought I’d be back here coaching the softball team that I was on once before? I’m pretty excited about it,” Knox said in September.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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