Nobody saw this incredible season coming.

The Greenwood High School boys came out of nowhere when it counted most to capture the school’s first-ever state title in any sport. The Bulldogs were the fourth seed in their own five-team regional tournament, having to win a play-in game to keep their season alive. Fred Ford, the 10th-year GHS coach, found the magic touch from there. And in the end, he led Greenwood to a 62-59 overtime victory over three-time defending state champion Raymond in the 4A title game in what was called a David-vs.-Goliath matchup.

Well, Goliath went down, and the Bulldogs enjoyed every second of it.

“The important thing is to get around to the kids who want to play here in the future or even want to be head coaches one day. They now see you can win championships here, so I hope this can inspire some younger kids to reach their dreams.

“It was a chemistry thing. I started all football guys last year, and over the summer, I worked on developing others and since we went deep in the playoffs in football, I was starting five to maintain us until they showed up,” said Ford, a Greenwood native and former Amanda Elzy High School and Mississsippi Valley State football/basketball player.

The Pillow Academy girls started this past season 1-3 against a tough slate, but that didn’t hold Durwin Carpenter’s Lady Mustangs back from catching fire late in the season.

“Once the girls fully bought in and figured out their roles, I knew this team could be special,” he said. “They do so much behind the scenes with these girls.”

Special indeed.

Those tough games in October and early November set the stage for what would be an incredible MAIS Overall Tournament run that ended with a 57-37 whitewashing of Jackson Prep in the finals.

“There is no doubt playing tougher competition to start paid off in the postseason. Our girls had already faced some of the best teams in the state and knew what it would take to win when it counted most,” said  Carpenter, a 47-year veteran of the high school coaching ranks.

The prep basketball season began with 128 girls teams in the MAIS, and the Lady Mustangs were the last one standing. They had to compete with 22 other teams in Class AAAA, making it out as the third seed after a heartbreaking loss to Simpson in the state semifinals.

Then by the time Overall rolled around, the PA girls were riding high and full of confidence. They rode the wave of 10 games in 17 days to the school’s record-tying seventh Overall crown, matching the previous accomplishment by Jackson Academy, one of the four teams it beat in six days at A.E. Wood Coliseum at Mississippi College in Clinton.

“It was just a great job by my assistants Holly Ann (Singh) and Mignon (Hodges). They did a great job of keeping this girls together,” Carpenter said.

With Ford delivering GHS its first state crown, and Carpenter guiding PA to its fourth Overall title during his 26-year tenure at Pillow, the two men are sharing the Greenwood Commonwealth’s Coach of the Year honor. It’s the first time in the last 27 years that the paper has given co-Coach of the Year honors.

Ford was aided by assistant coach and GHS alum Cary Weaver.

That theme carries over to the boys side, with Greenwood sophomore DeAndre Smith and Pillow senior Shane Houston Stephens sharing the top award.

Stephens, who was co-MVP of the All-Commonwealth football team,  didn’t slow down once he hit the hardwood. The 6-foot-2 senior guard averaged 26 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per game.

“Shane Houston had one of the best individual seasons I have seen in my coaching career. He is a phenomenal competitor and leader,” PA coach Wes Prather said. “He brought his best every practice and game. He was the focal point of our opposition defense every night and constantly found ways to produce offensively and get his teammates involved. He is one of the hardest working players I’ve had, and we are proud of all he accomplished.”

Stephens was named MVP for his team in the MAIS all-star game and won the MAIS 3-point contest while being named first-team all-conference.

Like Stephens, Smith is the star signal caller for his team as well. That season ended just short of a trip to state, so Smith had extra motivation by the time he joined the basketball team in early December. He brought instant toughness and fire to the team, Ford said.  

During his sophomore football season, he threw for 2,537 yards and 27 touchdowns for the 13-1 Bulldogs.  He stayed true to form in basketball as well. He averaged 19 points, seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals and four assists per contest.

In the 4A title game, the sophomore, took over in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. With 2:15 remaining in regulation, Smith converted a go-ahead layup on a fastbreak to give the Bulldogs a 51-50 lead. After Raymond tied the score, Smith made a midrange jumper with 24 seconds left to put Greenwood up two again — followed by a defensive play moments later to seal the victory.

“Hey, what can you say about him,” Ford said. “He is a baller. He shines when the lights are the brightest.”

 Smith scored 30 points in the state championship to carry the Bulldogs past a tough foe in Raymond.

“Losing in football, that broke my heart,” Smith said. “I'm a football player. That broke my heart. So I just wanted to get out in basketball and show them that I'm a two-way athlete. I can do it all. I had to get one in something.”

On the girls side, Pillow Academy junior Kaylee Jones is the paper’s Girls Player of the Year.  The 5-foot-10 forward showed her metle in the MAIS Oveall finals, piling up 19 points. She was the team’s top scorer this season, averaging 14.3 points per game to go with 4.7 rebounds.

“Kaylee has worked hard to improve her game. She is so dedicated to being the best player she can be, and that rubs off on her teammates,” Carpenter said. “She is a very versatile player who is a tough matchup for opposing defenses.”

Jones was by far and away PA’s top long-distance shooter, making 78 3-pointers — nearly double the next closest player on the team. She finished the year shooting 36% from beyond the arc for the Lady Mustangs.

nContact Bill Burrus at 581-7237 or bburrus@gwcommonwealth.com.

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