Over the last three years, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic has served as the kickoff for the Coast high school softball season.
Defending Class 6A state champion Harrison Central and 5A runner-up West Harrison lead the local prep teams competing in the three-day event that starts Friday at the Gulfport Sportsplex. The high school portion of the tournament will be held Friday and Saturday. Colleges play until Sunday.
Four in-state teams will compete: No. 23 Mississippi State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Southern Miss. No. 25 Baylor, Memphis, Incarnate Word, Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, McNeese State, Nicholls State, and Southeastern Louisiana are the other schools competing.
Harrison Central coach Jimmy Parker likes the Softball Classic's format. The defending Class 6A champions, led by Sun Herald player of the year Madison Burge, faces Alma Bryant in the opener at 5 p.m. Friday. Harrison Central faces 5A champion Neshoba Central on Saturday.
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"It's a good opportunity for the Coast teams to get to play some of the top teams from Central and North Mississippi, and some South Alabama teams they normally don't get a chance to play," Parker said. "The Coast teams play each other all the time. It is nice to play somebody different. The competition is always matched up well in the tournament. Both games will test our team not only on the field with the physical part of the game, but also the mental part. We can then judge what we need to do to improve before we get to the District part of our schedule in March. I am sure most of the Mississippi teams will be doing the same thing." West Harrison, considered a favorite to repeat as 5A South State champions, faces Robertsdale (Ala.) on Friday. St. Patrick, expected to challenge for its fourth 3A state title in five years, opens against Hancock on Friday. The Lady Hawks are considered a darkhorse in 6A.
"The Gulf Coast Classic has been the largest gathering of High School teams in the state for the last three years," Castanedo said. It is a great time for our High School kids to participate in and then go watch some of the very best college softball in the region.
"The competition is really good and getting better with the participation of some Alabama high schools this year. The level of competition at the Gulf Coast Classic is what brings the teams from the North such as South Panola and Desoto Central to the Classic. It is a lot of work to put together."
City of Gulfport Director of Leisure Services David D'Aquilla said the college coaches have enjoyed the event. Baylor coach Glenn Moore calls the Gulf Coast Softball Classic "a first-class collegiate softball competition."
D'Aquilla credits the Gulf Coast Classic committee--St. Patrick coach Tommy Castanedo, Rocky Brewer, David LaStrappes, Torye Hurst, Rusty Ramage, Ken Edwards, Brittany Dyess and Katie King-- for the event's success.
"The college coaches have always been positive about their experience here," D'Aquilla said. "Many of our teams are coming back from either the 2014 or 2015 event. The committee is continuously working to make the event better for the participants every year."
Two former Sun Herald All-South Mississippi performers will be competing. Former St. Patrick standout Sabrina Turner plays at Mississippi State. Michelle Stringer, who played at Bay High, plays for Southern Miss. Tickets will be sold at the gate, $10 daily or $20 for the weekend, which gets you into the prep and College games. Children 12 and under wearing a league jersey or travel ball jersey get in free.