Deaths dominate 2001 sports headlines
REMEMBERING A HERO
Mourners poured in to pay their respects to former Meridian High School standout Brian Cole after he was killed in a traffic accident in the Spring.
PHOTO BY PAULA MERITT / THE MERIDIAN STAR
By Austin Bishop/EMG regional sports director
Jan. 1, 2002
While 2001 was a time to cheer for many sports fans in the East Mississippi/West Alabama area, it also was a time to mourn.
The area had its share of teams win state championships, while a coaching legend came out of retirement to make his return to the football field.
But the biggest story of all were the deaths of four prominent sports figures in the area.
Certainly none of the deaths rate any more important than the other, and all were shocking in their own way.
Professional baseball player Brian Cole, former football All-American Smylie Gebhart and junior college coaches Jamie Clark and Steve Hull all left their own legacies.
Cole, a 22-year-old outfielder in the New York Mets organization, was the first to die. He was killed in a car accident on the last day of March as he was traveling from spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla. to his home in Meridian. He was going to leave his truck there, before flying to his assignment with the Class AA Binghamton (N.Y.) team.
Clark, the longtime baseball coach at East Central Community College in Decatur, was diagnosed with a brain tumor early in 2001 and fought bravely against the cancer that was ravaging his body.
He refused to quit coaching his team despite the pain he had to endure and survived until the end of the season.
Hull was playing golf this fall when he died of an unexpected heart attack. The basketball veteran was the men's head coach at East Mississippi Community College. He had coached at West Lauderdale before taking the EMCC job.
Gebhart, who earned All-American honors at Georgia Tech in the early 1970s, died late in the year. Even after a freak accident left him paralyzed, Gebhart continued to give of his time and courage to the community and became a true living legend.
The other top stories in The Meridian Star coverage area in 2001, as chosen by East Mississippi Group regional sports director Austin Bishop and Meridian Star sports writer Marty Stamper, are:
2. BASKETBALL SUCCESS STORIES: East Central Community College won the Region 23 basketball tournament and advanced to the NJCAA Division I National Tournament in Salina, Kan.
The Southeast Lauderdale girls, sparked by all-time scoring leader Monique Horner, won the MHSAA Class 3A state title, while Lake High School finished second in the state in 1A.
3. MAC BARNES RETURNS: Former Meridian High School football coach Mac Barnes returned to the sidelines when he retired as athletic director at MHS and took the job as high school principal and head football coach at Lamar School. His first Lamar squad went just 3-9, but finished in a tie for the district title and qualified for the playoffs.
4. SOFTBALL DOMINATION: The area continued to prove it is among the best when it comes to girls softball, as West Lauderdale won the Class 3A title and Northeast Lauderdale (4A), Clarkdale (2A) and Nanih Waiya (1A) all finished second.
5. SPRING SUCCESSES: The West Lauderdale and Heidelberg Academy baseball teams won state titles, while Lamar School won another golf championship. WL head coach Jerry Boatner also was selected to the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame.
6. HOOPS CHANGES: Two veteran basketball coaches in the area stepped down from their positions, when East Central Community College women's coach Sammy Pace and Choctaw Central High School girls coach Willis Tullos left the sidelines.
7. JONES TAKES TITLE: The Bobcats of Jones Junior College won the MACJC Football Championship with a title game win over Mississippi Delta.
8. END TO A RIVALRY: The Newton County School Board voted to discontinue playing Newton High School in athletic events.
9. THEY FINALLY GET TO PLAY: The Mississippi High School Activities Association and the Mississippi Private School Association agree to allow their member schools to compete against each other in limited situations. Lamar School competed in the first-ever sanctioned MHSAA-MPSA event when they took part in a cross-country meet in August.
10. STEPPING DOWN: Veteran football coach Charles Faulkner retired after leading Quitman High School to the state playoffs for the first time in 20 years and Meridian High School's Bill Sartin stepped down after just four seasons.