Photo by Chris Todd

By Robert Wilson

       Coach Brent Heavener led Jackson Prep to its fifth straight MAIS Class 6A state baseball championship last season, becoming the first school in Mississippi history to accomplish that feat.

       This week, Heavener can match Michael Jordan – considered by most as the best player in NBA history – who won six league championships without losing.

       Heavener, like Jordan, has never lost a championship. In fact, he has been a head coach at Prep for five seasons, and won a state title every year, not counting the covid year of 2020.

       For Heavener to reach Jordan’s incredible accomplishment, he must defeat Madison-Ridgeland Academy in a best-of-three series for the 6A state championship.

       No. 1 seed Prep – ranked No. 19 in the country by Perfect Game – is favored to win it again against No. 2 MRA. Prep swept MRA in the three game regular season series – winning 9-2, 9-3, 10-2 – and went 15-0 in league games this season.

       Game 1 is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Prep in Flowood, Game 2 Wednesday at 6 p.m. at MRA in Madison, and Game 3, if necessary, Thursday at 6 p.m. at Prep.

       Heavener was an assistant for Chuck Box for four seasons and took over for Box left for Hartfield Academy after he won six state titles in 10 seasons at Prep. Heavener was a part of three state titles as an assistant to Box before taking over the program.

       Heavener played at Tupelo High, Itawamba Community College and Mississippi College. After graduating from MC in 2002, he was a graduate assistant coach at Freed-Hardeman in Henderson, Tenn., and coached there for seven years, the last five as head assistant coach in charge of hitting and outfield. Heavener became a head coach for the first time in 2009 at Mobile, Ala., Christian and finished 25-10-1 and reached the state semifinals in its classification in Alabama.

       Heavener didn’t grow up wanting to be a coach as a career. In fact, he really didn’t think about it until he got to Freed-Hardeman.

       “I had the opportunity to finish school and coach at the same time in college and fell in love with it,” Heavener said. “I knew I could teach kids and get to be around kids every day. And there’s something about being on a team that you can never shake.”

       Heavener has had many coaches who have influenced him in his playing and coaching career.

       “I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great coaches,” Heavener said. “I played baseball for Larry Harmon at Tupelo. Booty Sloan and Johnny Hill were my high school football coaches. Mickey Linder may have had one of the greatest impacts in my life as a junior high football and basketball coach. I played for Chuck Box at Itawamba and coached with him at Freed-Hardeman and Prep. I coached offensive line for three years with Ricky Black at Prep. Take all those coaches and you kind of come up with who you are. I love baseball and everything it has done for me in my life, but I’m forever grateful of the friends and players that I’ve gotten to know over the years.”

       Heavener loves being at Prep.

       “Most people say it’s easy because you’re Prep,” Heavener said. “But I contribute our success to our great players and just how hard they work. They are smart kids that want to win, but they also know how to work hard. And when you have hard-working kids, and great coaches, like we do at Prep, things come together.”

       Heavener has been blessed with a lot of talented players, with many playing Division I baseball and several playing in the pros.

       “I’ve gotten to coach some really good ones at Prep,” Heavener said. “Guys like Jake Mangum, Gene Wood, Parker Caracci, Noah Hughes, Jerrion Ealy, Chance Loveritch, Will Warren, Riley Maddox, Will Gibbs, Mason Nichols, Eli and Thaxton Berch, Jeffery Ince and Cy Craig. Not to mention, the guys we have on the team now.”

       Prep is loaded with talent again this year, led by junior shortstop-pitcher and LSU commitment Konnor Griffin, the No. 1 rated player in the country in the Class of 2024 by Perfect Game. Then there is senior centerfielder and Mississippi State signee Rives Reynolds, senior catcher and South Alabama signee Duncan Mathews, senior baseman and Hinds CC signee Matthew Cochran, senior first baseman-pitcher and Hinds CC signee Graham Busbea, senior pitcher and Hinds CC signee Ford McDaniel and young talent like sophomore third baseman Tre Bryant, son of former NFL kicker Matt Bryant, and freshman pitcher Kevin Roberts.

       Prep has a 29-4 overall record and had won 19 straight games before being upset in Game 2 by Presbyterian Christian in last week’s 6A semifinals.

       “I’ve been very blessed and consider myself blessed to get to coach at Prep,” Heavener said. “But I also want to make my family, school, and everybody proud of what we’re doing with this program and we’re sending all these players. Most importantly, we want to raise good young men when they leave here.

       “I lost my dad (Ronnie Heavener) my first year back as head coach at Prep. And he never saw me coach as a head coach here, but I know he is watching. I’ve got a great support staff with my beautiful wife (Abby) and little girl (Mary Thornton) and all my family support from Tupelo.”

       Heavener is assisted by Jay Powell (associate head coach and hitting coach), Zander Romano (pitching coach), Marcus Canoy (outfield coach), Chris Maloney (hitting coach) and Peter Downing (director of operations).

Powell has been at Prep for four seasons after being head coach at Jackson Academy for 12 seasons. Powell, who played at Mississippi State, pitched in the major leagues for 11 seasons before retiring after an arm injury in 2005. He was the Game 7 winning pitcher for the Florida Marlins in the 1997 World Series.

“Heavy (Heavener’s nickname) has done a tremendous job of setting expectations for the program and getting the kids to believe they are capable of reaching them,” Powell said.

“The thing that has made Coach Heavener so successful is complete and total trust in his guys,” said Romano, who has been an assistant at Prep for eight seasons and was recently named the head coach at Heritage Academy. “He has known and developed his players for many years. From the time Coach Heavener spends with practice training the guys he sets a standard of excellence that the guys know they have to achieve. From setting that standard, he believes that his players can get the job done in pressure situations. When it comes to the games, Coach Heavener doesn’t overthink things. There’s not a lot of signals given when we hit. All the training and development of the mental side of baseball happens at practice. When it comes to games, our guys are loose, having fun, and just going out and playing ball. As a pitching coach, it has been some of the same attitude towards what I do for the program. He’s spent time coaching me up on things he did as the pitching coach when coach box was in charge. Having him and a former World Series Game 7 winner on staff (associate head coach and hitting coach Jay Powell) and Heavy still allowing me to be in complete control of the pitching staff has given me a lot of confidence in myself and has really helped me develop into the coach I am. It’s not just the pitching that he gives me freedom in. We meet as a staff daily for us to give input on things we believe can improve our program. Coach Heavener’s openness to our opinion and his ability to coach us up in all aspects of the game has certainly been a huge part of me being able to be in the position I am as a coach.”

Photo by Chris Todd

“Brent’s biggest asset as a coach is he genuinely cares for his players beyond the field,” Prep athletic director Will Crosby said. “He makes a point to keep up with them after they have graduated. Brent truly loves the young men that make up the baseball program.”   

       Box – now the director of player personnel for Texas A&M – told a story about Heavener as a player for him at Itawamba CC, which shows his determination and drive in anything he does.

“I think so much of Brent,” Box said. “His story is one of my favorites to tell in my 30 years of coaching. He is a guy who did not play right away, would not be told no, and worked to make himself into a great player. He hit over .400 on a junior college baseball team that was ranked number one in the country and went on to have a successful career at Mississippi College. That success has carried over to his coaching career. I have enjoyed watching is continued success at Prep.”

“Brent’s ability to build and foster relationships is what has led to his continued success. To win five straight titles is so impressive, and they have done it at a time when there are some good players in that league. However, what is equally impressive is he has continued to build Prep baseball into a brand that resonates not only in the state but also regionally, and even nationally. Outside of developing young men, winning championships, being ranked nationally, and sending players to the next level is the ultimate trifecta in high school baseball, and Brent has been able to accomplish that.”

“What is equally impressive is he has done it at a place where the expectations are high every year. No one is ever confused about the expectations at Prep. I remember my second week at Prep. I saw a blue trophy (state runner up) used to prop open a door. Some high schools put district championships and state title runners up on the outfield fences. Not a Prep. If you put those up, you will not coach there long. If you win people say, ‘well he should win.’ If you lose people say, ‘well, how can you lose with all that talent.’ That can weigh on you as a coach. I am so proud of Brent and look forward to his continued success.”

Jerrion Ealy, one of the top multi-sport athletes in school history, played baseball for Heavener and finished in 2019.

“Coach Heavener always goes over and beyond for his players,” said Ealy, who was an Under Armour All-American in baseball and football at Prep, played baseball and football at Ole Miss and now plays football for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. “He’s more than just a coach. Coach Heavener is always trying to better his guys or finding ways to. He has helped me whenever I needed it. He helped me learn to always do everything with intent and purpose, especially when out on the diamond.”

Mathews is one hit shy of hitting .500 this season (39 of 80) and has 10 doubles, 2 triples and 6 home runs. He leads the team with a .653 on base percentage. Mathews hit two home runs and had six runs batted in to key Prep to a 10-0 victory in Game 3 over Presbyterian Christian in the 6A semifinals last week. He was a member of the PriorityOne Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson baseball team as a second baseman last season and moved to starting at catcher this year. He hit .412 and helped Prep to a fifth straight state title and No. 21 national final ranking by Perfect Game.

       “Coach Heavener is one of the best coaches that I have ever had,” Mathews said. “He’s more than just a coach to this team. He’s someone that you can always count on to be there for you and he is always going to give you everything he has got to be able to put us in the best position to win. Coach Heavener and I have grown really close since I have been at Prep, and he always has been someone I am able to talk to about anything. I am very grateful to have Coach Heavener and excited to see how we finish off this season together.”