FOREST – It was bound to happen sooner or later and after 14 years in Scott County, it did last week. My hometown Winona Tigers came to visit Scott County in football playoff action against one of my adopted teams, Scott Central Rebels.
It wasn’t an easy experience for me because I have grown close to all five schools I have covered while writing sports here. I was nervous all last week for my Tigers because I knew the strength and the ability of Scott Central and they had been dominating everyone they faced this year.
Although I left the local newspaper in June and had no career obligation to attend Friday’s game, I felt duty bound as a fan of both schools to be there. To be fair, I spent one half on the Scott Central side and the other half on the Winona side. No matter how it turned out, I would be happy for one team and sad for the other.
I came really close to this happening seven years ago with one of my other schools here. In 2010, Forest was making a run at a state championship and won the title. Leading up to that game, Aberdeen traveled to Winona for the North State Championship during Thanksgiving week, so I was home with family and attended the game with my dad.
While I cheered for my Tigers, I had mixed feelings. If Winona had won, they would have faced Forest in the championship. Having covered Forest for the Scott County Times for so long, I was close to them. My wife teaches there. Aaron had just been born and would go to school there (now in second grade at FES). As it turned out, Channing Ward was too much for Winona and Aberdeen advanced, relieving me of the dilemma and allowing me to easily cheer for Forest.
So now I had Winona meeting Scott Central just seven miles north of my house. Like everything else in Mississippi, it was not without historical connections. In 2003, just two months after arriving in Forest, I covered Scott Central in the state 1A championship against the Weir Lions. Weir was coached by Winona native Junior Graham. One of his assistants on that team, Joey Tompkins, as you know is Winona’s current head coach. Weir defeated the Rebels 10-3 on a cold December day in Jackson.
My game story appears elsewhere here in today’s newspaper, so I won’t rehash Friday’s details. Watching both teams claw, scratch and battle scoreless through two quarters and most of the third, I wondered who would blink first. Scott Central scored first and I was afraid for Winona. Usually when the Rebels score first, they win, and their defense is tough to protect leads.
I was so proud of my Tigers in keeping their composure and battling back. They were not going gentle into the night. They came ready to play and their best ball was still ahead of them.
While Winona was battling, I thought of Wayne Gaines – a dear friend of my family and most of the Winona community - who was in a fight of his own for life in an intensive care unit of a Jackson hospital. A former athletic director and coach for Winona, he would have loved to see his Tigers play so well. I believe he was there in spirit.
Well, as most of you know, Winona prevailed and will be back in action this week – again, looking for a north state title at home this time against Calhoun City. I understand Winona beat Calhoun City last month and it is often hard to play the same team twice in the same season. It is easy, with the holiday thrown in and school being out, for a team to lose focus. Somehow, I don’t think Winona will. The Tigers know what is at stake and having won the battle I witnessed last week against a team like I know Scott Central has, I think they have the confidence they need to keep going.
Friday’s game really tugged on the heartstrings for me. I enjoyed seeing friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. I only got to cover one season of Winona football when I was at the Winona Times in 1995 before moving away so helping the newspaper was a personal joy. This week, I am turning the sideline chore back to the paper and cheering as a spectator.
My friends in Scott County picked on me a little before Friday’s game, knowing where I am from. They knew I was in a tough spot with my home team playing my adopted team. That's just Mississippi hometown high school football.
Only one team can win so I faced the thrill of victory and agony of defeat all rolled into one game. After 14 years of supporting the Bearcats, Hornets, Panthers, Rebels and Bobcats of Scott County, the bottom line on this one was that I was a Tiger before I was anything else. “Hail to thee our alma mater Winona High all hail!”
Chris Allen Baker is a native of Winona - class of 1989 - and lives in Forest. Previously a newspaper editor, he now works for a state agency.