From the Hornet Bowl to anthem controversies, 2017 was a wild sports year on the Coast

Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke kisses the Golden Egg trophy following the team's 31-28 win over Mississippi State during an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. Luke was named Ole Miss’ head coach after leading the Rebels to a 6-6 season.
Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke kisses the Golden Egg trophy following the team's 31-28 win over Mississippi State during an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. Luke was named Ole Miss’ head coach after leading the Rebels to a 6-6 season. AP

South Mississippi’s sports scene was a wild and memorable one in 2017, ranging from historic performances and accomplishments, to championships, changes and even some controversy. Here’s a list of the Coast’s top 10 sports stories from the year:

1. Coast sees historic 2017 football signing class: This was a historic year on the Coast in terms of football recruiting as a record number of South Mississippians signed with Division I programs straight out of high school. St. Stanislaus sent four to the next level in Myles Brennan (LSU), Darius Pittman (Purdue), Chase Rogers (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Corbin Blanchard (Air Force); George County’s Tyrese Fryfogle signed with Indiana; St. Martin’s Wayne Overman III signed with Air Force; Southern Miss signed D’Iberville’s Tyler Barnes, Gautier’s Paul Gainer and Biloxi’s Tim Jones; East Central’s Conner Estes heads to Louisiana Tech; Pascagoula’s James Jackson and Ocean Springs’ Austin Williams graduated high school early and enrolled at Mississippi State, as members of the Bulldogs’ 2017 signing class; Gulfport’s Cleveland Ford also enrolled early at Alcorn State, while fellow Admiral Princeton Fells signed with the Braves in February; Picayune’s Joshua Littles and Harrison Central’s Tavis Williams inked with Jackson State; HCHS defender Noah Vance also signed with Southeastern Louisiana; and Long Beach’s J’arius Warren signed with Navy. Thanks to the new “early” signing period earlier this month, 2017 was an even bigger year for the Coast’s football recruits with MSU landing East Central’s Brad Cumbest.

2. Gulfport’s Matt Luke gets ‘dream job’; NCAA investigation wrapping up: When Hugh Freeze abruptly resigned before the 2017 football season many prognosticators said Gulfport native Matt Luke had no shot at getting the full-time job at his alma mater. Well, they were wrong. The former Admiral led the Rebels to a 6-6 season, including a 31-28 upset of rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, and had the interim tag removed. The announcement came just ahead of the conclusion of the NCAA’s five-year investigation into the Rebels’ football program.

3. East Central Hornets capture Coast’s attention: The 2017 football season at East Central is one that won’t soon be forgotten in the community of Hurley. Under head coach Seth Smith, the Hornets claimed the first Class 4A South State football title in school history and finished with a 13-1 record. They came up just short of a state state title in a 41-35 loss to Noxubee County that included a second-quarter injury to star running back Tony Brown. East Central was a dominant team for much of the season with Brown leading the way. He ran for 2,748 yards and scored 50 touchdowns total, picking up Sun Herald Player of the Year and Gatorade Player of the Year for Mississippi. Dubbed the “Hornet Bowl,” East Central and Poplarville battled in the Class 4A South State title game in one of the biggest high school football games in South Mississippi in recent memory. East Central held off Poplarville 52-45 before a packed stadium in Poplarville.

4. Conference USA Baseball Tournament a success: The first Conference USA baseball tournament in Biloxi turned out to be a success with record crowds showing up. A total of 21,267 were in attendance over five days at MGM Park. The tournament was helped by the fact that Southern Miss played six games over five days, advancing to the Sunday title game against Rice. A crowd of 5,216 watched as Rice won 5-4, easily surpassing the previous largest crowd for a C-USA title game — 3,810 at East Carolina.

5. Coast plays big role in thrilling Hattiesburg Regional: The Hattiesburg NCAA Regional proved to be one for the ages with plenty of Coast flavor as Southern Miss hosted Mississippi State, South Alabama and Illinois-Chicago. East Central’s Konnor Pilkington proved his ace status for MSU; D’Iberville’s Dylan Hardy was dangerous atop USA’s order; and Biloxi’s Cody Brown was named the Most Outstanding Player after going 10-for-19 with two homers and seven RBIs in five games. The Golden Eagles, meanwhile, finished the year with 50 wins and were just a few innings away from advancing to a Super Regional. Pascagoula’s Tracy Hadley hit a 3-run homer to help USM beat South Alabama 8-3, clinching a spot in the title round against MSU. The Bulldogs beat USM twice on the regional’s final day to advance to face LSU in the Super Regional.

6. Football coaching changes aplenty: The state had three coaching changes. Mississippi State hired Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to replace Dan Mullen as its next football coach; Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College hired Jack Wright to replace Chad Huff; Pearl River Community College officially named Ted Egger its new football coach; Gulfport hired John Archie as its head coach; Gautier hired Marc High to succeed Chris Peterson as its football coach.

7. Biloxi Shuckers vs. Tim Bennett, Biloxi: It was a hectic year that involved a string of lawsuits between the City of Biloxi, Tim Bennett of Overtime Sports and the Biloxi Shuckers’ ownership group. It all started in December of 2016 with the city filing suit against Ken Young’s team ownership group and Overtime Sports, saying it was unable to determine how much the city was owed for rent, advertising and ticket sales because Biloxi Baseball and Overtime Sports failed to account for sales. An agreement was reached in March, but that didn’t end a volley of lawsuits between the three parties. Bennett, who owns part of the Shuckers, filed suit against Young, who is the managing member of Biloxi Baseball LLC, in May over access to MGM Park and money he says that he is owed. Young filed a counter lawsuit in June. In July, the City of Biloxi sued Overtime Sports over ticket sales revenue for the C-USA tournament.

8. National anthem controversy hits Pass Christian, Vancleave: The NFL’s National Anthem saga made it to the high school level in South Mississippi. First, three Pass Christian players took a knee prior to a game at Bay High, sparking an intense backlash on social media. That incident seemed to an inspire a decision at Vancleave High School, which kept players off the field during the anthem over the final three home games. A miscommunication led to the East Central team standing on the field for the anthem while Vancleave was still in the locker room prior to the regular season finale. This angered many parents and fans in Vancleave, forcing the school to announce that it would have student-athletes stand for the anthem from now on.

9. New Orleans Saints see bounceback in 2017: The New Orleans Saints ended a six-year playoff drought behind the running of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamura as well as a stingy defensive squad. The Saints can clinch the NFC South Division title with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

10. Ten team champions call Coast home: South Mississippi had plenty of team success in 2017 with 10 state championship squads: Pearl River baseball, St. Martin boys bowling, St. Patrick boys and Ocean Springs girls cross-country, Moss Point girls and Gulfport boys powerlifting, St. Patrick boys soccer, West Harrison girls track and field, plus Vancleave and Our Lady Academy volleyball.