May 14, 2018 9:41:47 AM
Neshoba Central High School fast-pitch softball coach Trae Embry has coached in some of the state's biggest games this decade.
On Friday, Neshoba Central won a sixth-straight Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 5A State championship with a 6-2 victory against Pearl River Central.
The title was different because it was the first one won on the campus of Mississippi State. The Class 1A, 3A, and 5A State championship series were played at MSU's Nusz Park. The Class 2A, 4A, and 6A State title series were played at Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
"It's a game-changer for softball in this state," Embry said. "It's the best thing to ever have happen in this sport. The players love it. The coaches love it. It's a big-time environment for the biggest games of our season. Proud of the MHSAA for making this move."
In 2014, the high school football state championships were moved from Jackson to MSU's Davis Wade Stadium. Presently, the six state championship games rotate between MSU, Ole Miss and this fall, for the first time, Southern Mississippi.
The volleyball state championships were played in the fall at MSU's Newell-Grissom Building. The MHSAA softball championships were the last to move to Division I campuses in the state.
"This is Vanntastic for softball in this state," MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. "The state has been slow in growing the sport, but this another step in the right direction. Anytime you have a chance to showcase your facilities, it's a win. We want to continue to bring in some of the best players in the state. You have to start with home-grown, in-state talent. That is how you build a program."
MSU had two commitments win state championships at Nusz Park. Neshoba Central junior pitcher Aspen Wesley threw her 11th no-hitter of the season in a 3-0 victory against Pearl River Central on Thursday. She then threw a four-hitter in Game 2.
"Playing here was an incredible experience," Wesley said. "Playing at Mississippi State added just a little extra motivation throughout the season. It was great to play in this stadium. It made you feel like everything was a little more big time. Got to admit, I was a little nervous before pitching the first game."
Junior third baseman Aquana Brownlee helped lead Houston to its second fast-pitch state championship. Brownlee, another MSU commitment, homered in both victories against Raleigh.
"Everybody was more hyped playing at State," Brownlee said. "It made you want to get to that championship just a little more. It was a fun experience for everybody involved. I hope we have a chance to come back here and do this again."
Hamilton took two of three games in the Class 1A State championship series against Myrtle. It was the first fast-pitch state title for the Lady Lions.
"Playing at Mississippi State will always mean a lot to these girls," Hamilton coach Bryan Loague said. "Many of them will never have this kind of experience again. This group has worked so hard that I am proud they got make the history of winning a first fast-pitch championship. Playing at MSU made it much easier on our fans, too, so this was a great experience."
Myrtle and Hamilton virtually filled the stadium for each of their three meetings. With each school being less than 75 miles from the MSU campus, travel was easy and both schools had large turnouts.
The trend continued with strong crowd support for each of the final two games Thursday and Friday. Attendance figures also were strong at Southern Miss, where most of the participating teams had longer trips to make.
"For the first time around, everything went well," MHSAA Executive Director Don Hinton said. "The feedback from coaches and players was very positive. The change of venue added to the championship games. I think it made an impact."
The fast-pitch championships were played in Madison or Ridgeland prior to moving to MSU and Southern Miss.
The economic impact of moving softball games isn't nearly as dramatic moving football games. The football state championship games in the larger classifications can draw between 15,000 and 20,000 people.
However, the football games went first, and the feedback statewide has been positive. The MHSAA has continued that trend by moving other events.
While a plan for the fast-pitch championships hasn't been announced, look for a similar setup to this season.
On this occasion, the MHSAA got it right.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
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