2015 YEAR IN REVIEW: Retirement, titles highlight year’s top local sports stories

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 1, 2016

The year was another successful one for many of the area’s sports teams.

Some kept on rolling. Some did things they haven’t done in a long, long time. Some did things they had never done before. From signature wins to state championships to frenetic finishes to scrapbook moments, 2015 featured a little bit of everything on the local sports scene.

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But perhaps the biggest headline came the news that one of the state’s most successful football coaches was hanging it up.

Oxford’s Johnny Hill announced shortly after the 2014 season that 2015 would be his 40th and final season to coach. The Chargers’ all-time winningest coach, who had two separate stints at the school spanning more than two decades, led Oxford to its only four state championship game appearances before his retirement became official at the end of the fall semester.

Here’s a look back at some of the top sports stories of the last year:

Hill’s announcement

Hill made his decision to retire public on Jan. 28, informing Oxford School District Brian Harvey during a meeting earlier in the day.

“After 40 years of coaching, I think it’s time for me step down and give these younger coaches a chance,” Hill said at the time.

Hill, who also coached at Warren Central, Marshall Academy and Tupelo, arrived in Oxford in 1989 and stayed until accepting the Golden Wave’s head coaching position in 1996. He returned for good in 2000 and finished his final season at Oxford by leading the Chargers to their third straight MHSAA Class 5A state championship game appearance.

The Chargers fell short of their first-ever state title with a 45-41 loss to Wayne County, but they finished with a 12-3 record. Hill accumulated 259 wins as a head coach.

“I’m grateful to Oxford,” Hill said. “They have been so good to me.”

Lady ‘Dores make history

The Lafayette girls soccer team capped its historic postseason run with a 3-1 victory by way of penalty kicks over Northeast Jones to claim the MHSAA Class 4A state championship — the first in program history — at the Madison Central High School campus on Feb. 7. The match finished in a 3-all tie in regulation.

“These girls have built this program,” Lafayette coach Melinda Scruggs said. “Even kids that were here beforehand, they mean everything up to this point. We have nowhere to go but up. The sky’s the limit for us next year. Hopefully come back next year and win it again.”

Lafayette, which finished 18-4, was the aggressor for the majority of the first half as the Commodores kept pressure on Northeast Jones’ side of the field, which provided multiple scoring chances. The Commodores drew first blood as they finally found the back of the net when Maddy Houghton scored from about 20 yards out as the ball bounced past the stretched-out Tigers’ goalkeeper at the 19-minute mark.

The 1-0 lead was held for the rest of the first half until Northeast Jones’ Morgan Mansell tied the match at 1 at the 40-minute mark just seconds before halftime.

The Tigers used that momentum to take their first lead of the match when Esmeralda Figueroa broke the tie eight minutes into the second half, but their lead was short-lived as Lafayette’s Alley Houghton leveled the match for a second time with a goal a minute later before each team mustered one goal the rest of the way to set up penalty kicks.

Comeback kids

The Ole Miss men’s basketball team’s loudest offensive explosion of the 2014-2015 season came at the right time.

The Rebels poured in 62 points in the second half to erase a 17-point halftime deficit and advance in the NCAA Tournament with a 94-90 victory over BYU in the First Four at the University of Dayton Arena on March 17.

“Welcome to March Madness,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said afterward.

It was the largest comeback of the tournament as the Rebels used six double-figure scorers to survive a barrage of 3-pointers from BYU, which came in as the nation’s second-highest scoring team at 83.6 points per game.

Ole Miss trailed 49-32 at the break.

Stefan Moody led Ole Miss with 26 points, going back and forth with the nation’s third-leading scorer in BYU’s Tyler Haws, who tied a season-high with five 3s and finished 13 of 23 from the floor for a game-high 33 points. BYU made 15 3s in all and shot it at a 48.3-percent clip.

Forward M.J. Rhett scored 14 of his career-high 20 points in the second half. The Rebels finished with a 21-13 record after getting bounced by Xavier in the next round but left their mark on college basketball’s most exciting month.

OHS lifters notch three-peat

The Oxford boys powerlifting team finished with 44 team points to win its third consecutive MHSAA Class 5A state championship in Jackson on April 18.

Nine of the Chargers’ 10 lifters medaled in their respective weight classes as Oxford bested runner-up Ridgeland by 16 points.

“Any time you get a chance to (win state), it’s a special thing,” Oxford coach Jason Russell said. “The thing that’s most exciting is seeing those guys get their first state championship and seeing them get to experience that. That’s why we do it is for getting these kids experiences and letting them be successful. Getting a chance to watch them succeed and enjoy that is the most fun thing for me.”

Tias Hilliard and Kenzie Phillips led Oxford, taking gold in the 148-pound class and 198-pound class, respectively. Alex Le (123-pound weight class), Elisha Brassell (132), Collin Le (181) and Jaquez Neilson (308) each turned in second-place finishes while Trevin Wadlington (123), D.Q. Thomas (181) and Brandon Hill (308) each placed third.

First-place finishes were good for seven points toward the team total. Runner-up finishes netted five, third place got three and fourth place got two.

OHS track runs to another title

The Oxford boys track and field team crushed the competition on its way to a second straight MHSAA Class 5A title at the Woody Barnett Track and Field Complex at Pearl High School on May 8.

The Chargers won convincingly with 117 points, which was 56 points ahead of runner-up Canton. It was the complete opposite from the previous year where it came down to the final few events before Oxford knew it was the champion.

“This year, we were so much more balanced,” Oxford coach Chris Bush said. “We had guys that didn’t make it last year that made it this year. We had a good day with our field events and that took us into the evening, so we had a big cushion.”

The day got started on the right foot for the Chargers as Mike McGhee, Collin Le and Shelby McEwen continued their dominance in their respective field events. McGhee (54 feet, 9 inches) and Le (46-10) finished first and second in the shot put, respectively. Le held off Wingfield’s Jacques Mangum by one inch to claim runner-up.

Le claimed first place in the discus throw with a measure of 142-1. McEwen claimed first in the high jump with a clearance of 7-0.

In the running events, Tristan Orman won the 3,200 meters with a time just more than 10 minutes flat. The 4×200-meter relay team of D.K. Metcalf, Devin Rockette, Kenard Harris and Jaquan Webb claimed first place with a time of 1:29.39.

Another one for OHS tennis

It was business as usual for the Oxford tennis team on May 11 as the Chargers cruised to an eighth consecutive state title with a 7-0 win over Stone County at the Ridgeland Tennis Center.

It was the fifth time Oxford and Stone County met in the championship, and for Oxford coach Louis Nash, this one came the easiest to him and his team. The win also capped another perfect season for the Chargers as they finished 18-0 and won their sixth straight title in 5A.

“That is probably as good as we’ve been one through 12,” Nash said. “Some of these before were big-time stress. Last year, I had a lot of stress, but once I made the lineup out, I was through with stressing on it.”

Abbie Vaughn won the girls’ singles point with a 6-0, 6-0 victory. Oxford claimed the mixed doubles point with a 6-0, 6-0 win by Bo Nash and Grace Anne Jones to take an early 2-0 lead over the Wildcats.

The title was claimed when Will Swindoll and Cole Atkins won the No. 1 boys doubles point with a 6-2, 6-0 win followed by Emily Morgan and Amanda Lowery winning the No. 1 girls double point in straight sets for the fourth and deciding point of the match.

Max Mauney and Callan Shinall won the second boys doubles point with a 7-6, 6-3 win while Sarah Nash and McClellan Davis won the No. 2 girls doubles point with a 6-2, 6-0 victory.

Oxford won all but one match in straight sets.

OHS baseball nearly perfect

Oxford’s baseball team punctuated one of the best seasons in school history with a 9-0 win over George County on May 21 at Trustmark Park, finishing off a sweep in the title series and claiming the MHSAA Class 5A state championship.

The Chargers (35-1) turned in the first unbeaten regular season in program history and won 32 straight before losing its lone game to New Hope in the North Half finals. Oxford finished one victory shy of the single-season school record set by the 2005 team, which won 36 when it claimed the program’s first state title.

“I thought we won it the way we should’ve won it,” Oxford coach Chris Baughman said. “You couldn’t have written a better ending for us the way we’ve played all year. We’ve been dominant all year.”

Oxford outscored the Rebels 13-0 in the best-of-three series as pitcher Jason Barber fired a three-hitter in the clincher to finish the season with a 0.00 earned run average. Houston Roth threw a one-hitter in the series opener.

“It’s awesome,” senior outfielder Matthew Guyton said. “There’s nothing else I can say. It’s a perfect way for my senior year to end. To go out like this, it’s unbelievable.”

Oxford ended the season ranked in the top 5 nationally by numerous publications and will be the favorite to win it all again in 2016 with four Ole Miss signees in its starting lineup.

Rare win in Tuscaloosa

It took a miraculous touchdown pass and another one that came just in the nick of time, but the Ole Miss football team notched a rare win over Alabama with a 43-37 victory on Sept. 19 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It was just the second win ever in Tuscaloosa for the Rebels, who had lost 12 straight on the Tide’s turf dating back to 1988. It also marked the first time ever Ole Miss has beaten Alabama in consecutive years.

Ole Miss led by as many as 20 late in the third quarter with the help of five Alabama turnovers, but Tide quarterback Jake Coker, who came off the bench, helped mount four late scoring drives to cut the advantage to one score twice. Coker was picked twice but threw for 201 yards and three scores from the second quarter on.

“I thought we had it put away a couple times,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “They just wouldn’t go away. … It was an emotional rollercoaster.”

Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns, including a 73-yarder to Cody Core where the junior sprinted toward the line of scrimmage and pulled up to get the pass off at the last second. Kelly also recovered a high snap on Ole Miss’ first possession of the third quarter and threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Adeboyejo that went off Laquon Treadwell’s hands and a defender’s helmet before falling into Adeboyejo’s arms.

Ole Miss soccer’s historic run

For the first time in program history, the Ole Miss soccer team ended its season as one of the final 16 teams standing in the NCAA Tournament when the Rebels upset No. 7 Clemson in penalty kicks on Nov. 20.

The second-round match went to extra time tied 1-1 before Ole Miss eventually got the better of the Tigers in penalty kicks, 5-4. Liza Harbin scored the winner.

It was the third top-10 win of the season for the Rebels, whose tournament run ended on the opposite side of another 5-4 shootout against Texas A&M two days later. Ole Miss, making its second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons, opened the tournament with a 1-0 win over Murray State.

Ole Miss, which has its top two scorers returning in Addie Forbus and SEC Freshman of the Year CeCe Kizer, finished at No. 16 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, its highest final ranking ever. Head coach Matt Mott recently received a four-year contract extension.

Sweet taste again

After a couple of midseason losses halted Ole Miss’ momentum, the football team ended with a flurry to end a nearly five-decade drought at the Sugar Bowl.

Ole Miss found out it had been invited to the annual New Year’s Day bowl on Dec. 6 when bowl selections were announced. The Rebels finished the regular season 9-3 with wins in four of their last five games, including victories over LSU and Mississippi State, to finish as the SEC’s second-highest ranked team in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

“It’s great that’s finally official and we can celebrate with our team, our coaches, our administration and our great fans something that I know, next to getting into the playoffs, this has to be the pinnacle of everything you could accomplish this year,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “The Sugar Bowl means so much to the Ole Miss family, and we’re excited to make it official.”

With No. 2 Alabama, the SEC champion, participating in the four-team playoff, Ole Miss got the league’s nod to play in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1970. The Rebels’ nine Sugar Bowl appearances are tied for the third-most by one team.

The 12th-ranked Rebels will play No. 16 Oklahoma State at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans tonight at 7:30.