First visit to Ethel and a few laughs on the pitch

Published 9:22 am Thursday, October 12, 2017

By Joel McNeece

There are few schools in Mississippi that I haven’t been to at one point or another during my newspaper career. Ethel was one of them until last Friday when I visited to cover the Vardaman Rams.

Curious who Ethel was, I did some searching and found that the town of approximately 400 is named for the daughter of Capt. S.B. McConnico, who served with Louisiana’s Orleans Independent Artillery during the Civil War. The McConnico’s connections to the village of Ethel at the time, I do not know. Located just off Hwy. 12 about 10 miles northeast of Kosciusko, I was familiar with the school, I had just never attended a game there.

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The school building sat high on a hill with the football field down in a hole on the back side of it, not unlike Water Valley and Vicksburg high schools.

I met Vardaman Coach Larry Gann at midfield during pre-game and asked if he had ever been here before.

“I know we played them in my first go-round in Vardaman (in the early 1980s), but I don’t remember if it was here or at home,” he said.

I took a picture of the old, dark scoreboard tucked away in the far corner of the field and admired the giant concrete bleachers built into the hill tapering down from the gymnasium.

There are a lot of big, fancy high school football stadiums across this state, such as my alma mater of Clinton, but to get the feel of true Mississippi gridiron play under the Friday night lights, you have to be on the 1A and 2A circuit visiting places like Ethel.

While reveling in the history and sentimentality, I must admit a little frustration at the lack of phone signal.

An awful lot of people count on our football score updates every Friday night on Twitter (@CalhCoJournal), and I myself was hoping to keep track of the United States National Team playing a critical World Cup qualifying soccer match against Panama. I was recording the game at home but knew I wouldn’t be able to hold out that long.

Pacing up and down the visitor sideline I found the one spot in Ethel where you can get a single bar from AT&T. It was on the 33-yard line on the east end, and I found myself there an awful lot trying to will the action on the field to come my direction.

I managed to get an occasional update out while at the same time see the brilliance of young Christian Pulisic and the United States pouring on the attack against Panama. As fast as the Rams were racing past the home Tigers at Ethel, Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and crew were doing the same for the USA in a 4-0 thrashing.

I listened to all the post-game soccer coverage of the match on the long, two-lane ride home, stopping only in Eupora for some late night ice cream. I stayed up until 1 a.m. watching the game in its entirety drawing relief that the U.S. had put themselves back in control to secure a World Cup berth.

Seemingly only a few hours later I was on the Bruce Square with granddaughter Addi Claire for the Skuna River Art and Music Festival. She was talking soccer the entire time, which I loved. She’s playing on a team in Bruce Park I’m coaching this fall.

On our first trip around the square, we bumped into Bailey Parker, another player on the team, who said he was anxious for Monday. We practice on Monday and Thursday nights.

Teaching soccer to young kids is an entertaining experience, to say the least. Last week one of my players told me he wanted to play goalie because his hands were “unbelievably talented.”

Who am I to argue with that? I just suggested we try to get his feet to catch up.

I spent a recent practice preaching the importance of a great pass, especially from the wing into the center of the pitch (the international term for a soccer field) to best set up a goal opportunity. It was seconds later when Bailey provided us one to perfection. Jasmine Tutor, a scrappy, blonde headed, glasses wearing fireball was in position in front of the goal and spotted the ball coming right at her head and promptly reached up and slapped it away with her hands.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“What did you want me to do, let it hit me in the face?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I said, trying to keep from falling over laughing.

I demonstrated a few headers and suggested this is what we do when the ball is crossed into the center.

“My head’s not that hard,” Jasmine said matter-of-factly.

I had no answer, only more laughs.

Joel McNeese is the publisher of the Calhoun County Journal.