Three baseball seasons have now come and gone since the Sunday afternoon in 2013 when a tornado ripped through Hattiesburg.
The twister seemed to have a particular appetite for baseball fields, as it destroyed the ballparks at Oak Grove and Hattiesburg high schools.
While the Warriors were able to get back on their home field in time for the 2014 season, that has not been the case for the Tigers.
Smokie Harrington Park, the historic home of Hattiesburg High baseball, was heavily damaged, and because of the history behind the old facility, simply clearing the site and building a new home for the Tigers wasn’t an option.
“Honestly, I’m still not over it,” said veteran HHS coach Joe Hartfield. “We take a lot of pride in keeping our facilities up, and that’s been very difficult with the construction that’s been going on.”
While construction of the new Smokie Harrington Park has been going on, Hartfield has had a team to coach – a team that has no home.
For three seasons, Hartfield has had to beg and scramble for places to play “home” games and even places to practice.
In spite of those long odds, the Tigers have not only survived, but they’ve thrived.
Hattiesburg was a big surprise this season, charging down the stretch to make the playoffs in Region 7-6A.
Once in the postseason, the Tigers swept past Provine in the opening round of the playoffs, then battled toe-to-toe with eventual South State champion Oak Grove in the second round of the playoffs.
For that success, for winning and building a team with a bright future in the face of such adversity, Hartfield has been named as the Hattiesburg American Baseball All-Area Coach of the Year.
“I love everything about Joe Hartfield,” said Cheyenne Trussell, Hattiesburg athletic director.
“As a person, as a family man, how he handles time with his family and as a coach, not only with our student-athletes, but the way he conducts himself with his coaching staff.”
Hartfield is no longer the boyish young coach that started his career with such a bang in the late 1990s at Lumberton when he won Coach of the Year honors in 1999 and 2001. There is some gray hair creeping in and he already has a daughter in college.
But he still retains the boyish enthusiasm for motivating young men to succeed on the baseball field and in the game of life.
“Motivation is where he’s excelled the most,” said Tiger assistant coach Brent Barham, who has been with Hartfield since he came to HHS in 1997.
“He motivates kids to do their best, not just on the field, but off the field. After these kids have a tough stretch of non-home games and get in late, he is still getting them to show up for class the next morning.”
Nowhere has Hartfield’s motivational prowess been tested more than in these past three seasons. Getting a team to win when it has to practice and play on a myriad of different fields is no mean feat.
“I don’t think we practice on a real, legal baseball field more than five times this entire year,” said Hartfield. “Most of our practices were at Mississippi Elite (a private facility in Lamar County).
“We also practiced on the turf at the football field a few times, sometimes just in the outfield at Smokie Harrington. There was one time we got to practice on William Carey’s field and it felt so good to have full resources to practice on.”
Hartfield also wore out his welcome, so to speak, in trying to get access to fields for home games in the Hattiesburg area.
For the most part, the Tigers have alternated between Milton Wheeler Field at Carey and Pete Taylor Park at Southern Miss as their home away from home for the past three seasons.
“The first year was not bad,” Hartfield said. “The second year, it was a little more difficult. This past year was extremely difficult, and frustrating on both ends, I’m sure.
“But, Coach (Scott) Berry and Coach (Bobby) Halford are tremendous people. Their athletic departments have been very kind to us for allowing us to play at their facilities.”
Not surprisingly, the Tigers did not start the season particularly well. They showed flashes of what they would become in some early games, but lost a number of one-run games in region play.
In fact, of Hattiesburg’s 11 losses (against 18 victories), seven were by one run and another was a 2-0 defeat.
The result was the Tigers had to win nine of their last 10 games – including their last six in a row – just to make the playoffs.
“I have to back up to last year, when we only won 10 ball games,” Hartfield said.
“We kept losing close ball games, but that entire season I knew we were headed in the right direction because our kids kept playing hard, even after a tough loss. This year, our kids just kept playing hard, and we turned it around.”
After all of the struggles, Hartfield and the Tigers can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The rebuilt Smokie Harrington Park is nearly complete and Hattiesburg returns a strong nucleus of players from this year’s team.
“Even though our field was in a shambles after the storm, I had a sense of calmness,” said Trussell. “That was because I knew we had Coach Hartfield in place and I knew he was going to do whatever it took to put us on as much of a level field as possible.”
With success, though, comes a different kind of pressure, the pressure of high expectations.
“I told the kids after our last game against Oak Grove, when we were eliminated, that there were going to be high expectations now,” Hartfield said.
“So we have to make sure that we stay humble and we’ve got to continue to work hard. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not going to play as a cohesive unit.”
And it is no accident that of his five assistant coaches, four played for Hartfield and the fifth is John Lindsey Sr., one of the elder statesmen of baseball in Hattiesburg.
“There has been a longevity with this group that is just tremendous,” Hartfield said.
“Those guys have been through the ups and downs with this program, but we have always persevered and run the program with, and I have to give these guys a lot of the credit for that.”
Past Coaches of the Year
Coaches who have been selected as Hattiesburg American All-Area Coach of the Year since 1990:
2015 – Joe Hartfield (Hattiesburg)
2014 – Chris McCardle (Oak Grove)
2013 – Chris McCardle (Oak Grove)
2012 – Chris McCardle (Oak Grove)
2011 – Larry Watkins (Petal)
2010 – Larry Watkins (Petal)
2009 – Larry Knight (Sumrall)
2008 – Larry Knight (Sumrall) & Brandon Davis (Richton)
2007 – Brandon Davis (Richton)
2006 – Larry Knight (Hattiesburg)
2005 – Tony Farlow (Purvis)
2004 – Tony Farlow (Purvis) & Harry Breland (Oak Grove)
2003 – Harry Breland (Oak Grove)
2002 – Tony Farlow (Purvis)
2001 – Joe Hartfield (Lumberton)
2000 – Harry Breland (Oak Grove)
1999 – Joe Hartfield (Lumberton)
1998 – Larry Knight (Hattiesburg)
1997 – Bruce Ratliff (Columbia)
1996 – Randy Lott (Seminary)
1995 – Chris Clark (FCAHS)
1994 – Larry Knight (Hattiesburg)
1993 – Harry Breland (Oak Grove) & Lee Sullivan (North Forrest)
1992 – Harry Breland (Oak Grove)
1991 – Larry Watkins (Petal)
1990 – Keith Case (Purvis)