If there are two coaches who have their roots deep in their respective communities, it would Caronica Jackson and Laron Brumfield.
Jackson is a Hattiesburg native, who played basketball for Hattiesburg High, then returned as the coach of the Lady Tigers.
Brumfield came to Hattiesburg as a freshman in college, at William Carey University, in the early 1990s and never left, sinking roots in the Oak Grove community while he was starting his coaching career as an assistant at his college alma mater.
While Jackson is well-established as the coach at HHS, Brumfield was called on just last year to hopefully provide some stability to the Oak Grove boys basketball program, and win some games along the way.
He did that, leading the Warriors to a 20-win season, and Jackson had another banner year for Hattiesburg, leading the Lady Tigers to a 26-3 mark that included an appearance in the Class 6A quarterfinals.
For their achievements this past season, Brumfield and Jackson have been named as the Hattiesburg American Boys and Girls Coach of the Year, respectively.
“The word for her is solid,” said Hattiesburg athletic director Cheyenne Trussell. “Coach Jackson has been solid both on and off the court. To the young ladies she coaches, she’s a mentor and a mother figure.
“She’s been a perfect fit for us.”
Now in her 10th season as the Lady Tigers’ coach, Jackson has had just one losing season – her first year as coach in 2005-06 – and since then her teams are 184-67, an average of 20 wins a year.
This year’s squad, though, was not expected to soar to the heights that it ultimately achieved.
“We knew we had some talent coming in, but we also had some new faces coming in,” said Jackson. “So the question was would they gel together. But it was a very big season for us.”
Indeed. HHS won both the regular-season and tournament championships in Region 7-6A, then knocked off Petal in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs to advance to the State Tournament in Jackson.
There were no such honors for Oak Grove, which finished third in Region 5-6A in the regular season.
But a 20-12 record for Warrior basketball is a significant improvement over previous seasons, especially considering that Brumfield was the fifth coach in five seasons for the Oak Grove boys.
“He gave us seniors the leadership role,” said Warrior senior Ashton Pierce. “He calls the shots, but at the same time, he gave us the opportunity to come together as a group and lead the young guys.”
Brumfield takes a lot of his cues from his own mentor, longtime Carey coach Steve Knight, who has guided that program for the past 33 seasons.
“I thought we had a great season this year,” Brumfield said. “The kids came out and responded well.
“Stability, we’re really working on that right now. We really like it out in Oak Grove. We’ve got a lot of good, young talent coming up, so I think we can continue to build on what we’re doing.”
Getting a coach who wanted to be the boys basketball coach at Oak Grove now and in the future was a big priority last summer, when the position came open once again.
“The biggest thing I see about Laron is that he’s passionate about what he’s doing,” said Oak Grove athletic director Chris McCardle.
“He believes in what he’s doing and the kids respond to him. He’s very positive. He’s been a good fit for us, and we’re very glad we were able to get him. I think his roots are here and I think he’ll be here for awhile.”
Hattiesburg’s season came to an end in a 58-51 loss to Starkville, in which the Lady Tigers’ size disadvantage finally caught up with them at the worst time – in the fourth quarter.
“For most of the season, we were usually the smaller team,” Jackson said. “We joked about it sometimes, that we did not win one jump ball all season because we lined up in a defensive jump.
“We’ve always been small, but our guard play made up for it, and the heart of our post players was a big factor. They played big and they rebounded well.”
Oak Grove’s season ended in a thrilling 69-66 loss to Hattiesburg in the second round of the 6A playoffs, after upsetting Biloxi in the opening round.
But that didn’t dampen Brumfield’s enthusiasm for what his team accomplished.
“The biggest surprise was how much the kids wanted it,” Brumfield said. “They really wanted to win, not just to prove a point to other people, but to prove a point to themselves that they could win.”