Mississippi High School tennis season comes to a close

By RUSSELL DENDY,

For a lot of junior tennis players, some of the best memories they will ever have from the sport come from playing tennis for their high school teams. High school tennis gives junior players the unique opportunity to play with their peers and classmates, while at the same time the honor of representing their school and accomplishing success as a team. High school and college tennis takes center stage for junior players in the spring months, and the season has recently concluded for all of the Northside area teams.

The Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) hosted six divisions of team championships, and the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) hosted five divisions in May to determine their 2019 team champions.

In MHSAA play, St Andrews was able to take home the team championship in the 3A Division after defeating South Pontotoc 6-1, continuing an impressive run of state championships for the school. After finishing second to Ocean Springs in 2018, Brad Boteler’s Madison Central Jaguars team was able to get revenge and capture their third 6A title in the last four years with a 6-1 win over Ocean Springs in the final.

After the team championship concludes, the MHSAA also holds individual championship play for each event. Players from many different Northside teams won individual championships.

In MAIS play, Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy continued their dominance in the sport, as the two compete in the AAAA-D1 Division, the largest classification for MAIS schools. Jackson Prep, coached by Rachel Causey, took home the team championship in the boys division. In the girls division, Colleen Roberts’ Jackson Academy team came away with the title.

Many junior tennis players from the Northside go on to compete at the next level, with many earning scholarships to play collegiately at schools across the country.

Among those colleges and universities located in the Northside area, the Hinds Community College Men’s team had a banner year as they took home the MACJC State and Region 23 Championships. In addition to the team championship, Hinds coach Jacki Millet was named the Men’s MACJC Region 23 Coach of the Year.

Longtime Jackson Pro Honored by Hinds

Few tennis coaches in the Jackson area are more respected and revered than Cleon McKnight, who has been involved in the game in the Jackson area in several different capacities for more than 40 years.

A Bogue Chitto native, McKnight wasn’t introduced to the game until the age of 30 while teaching chemistry at Utica Junior College. Now 73, McKnight has an impressive list of tennis accolades and can’t imagine his life without the game.

McKnight has 32 years of experience teaching chemistry between Utica and Hinds Community College, and starting in 1978, he became the men’s and women’s tennis coach at Hinds. After taking over as tennis coach, McKnight compiled a 430-49 record over the next 22 years before retiring from teaching and coaching in 2001. During his tenure, the Hinds men’s team won nine state and eight Region 23 Championships, while the women’s team also won eight state and Region 23 titles. That success included five undefeated seasons on the men’s side, and four undefeated seasons on the women’s side. McKnight’s time as a coach earned him almost every honor a coach could have, as he has won numerous Coach of the Year awards to go along with being inducted into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame, the National Junior College Athletics Association Hall of Fame, and the Hinds Community College Sports Hall of Fame.

After “retiring” from coaching at Hinds in 2001, McKnight did anything but retire from the game. He served as the director of tennis at the City of Jackson’s Tennis Center South facility for many years, and is still teaching today as an assistant pro at Parham Bridges Tennis Center. McKnight even finds time to serve as a referee and official for various tennis tournaments and collegiate matches as well, and may not ever put down the sport.

“What I love about tennis is that it really teaches you how to make decisions for yourself,” McKnight said. “You have to make decisions on the court in a split-second, and you have to coordinate what your coach says at the same time you make adjustments to the other person on the court.”

Recently, McKnight received yet another honor as Hinds Community College dedicated its tennis facility to McKnight, naming it the Cleon McKnight Tennis Center.

“I discovered a long time ago that God has a role for all of us to play,” said McKnight. “I discovered that mine was teaching, and I’ve felt so blessed to be able to mold juniors into successful players and make them feel good about themselves.”

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Cheering for Jackson Prep this year are (from left, back) Eliza Hollingsworth, Margaret Dye, Livi Mathews, Addy Katherine Allen, Rosemary McClintock, Kennedy Cleveland, Rachel Rutledge, Mari Lampt