By Torsheta Jackson
Winning a championship is impressive. Sweeping the girls and boys state championships is even more spectacular. However, winning both championships without a gym is monumental. Clinton Christian Academy, this year’s MAIS Class 3A state champions, has done just that.
CCA has broken ground to build a new state-of-the-art athletic and performing arts center this year, but during basketball season an empty plot of dirt held residence in the space designated for the gym. That meant that CCA had no court to call home. Although it is not the first season the school has been in this predicament, COVID made this year much more challenging. Many of the gyms the school used in the past were off-limits leaving them with few options for practices and games. Clinton United Methodist Church allowed them to use their gym for workouts, but that meant late after school practices. The athletes would head home at the final bell to complete their schoolwork then gather at the church for practice. The Lady Warriors began at 6 p.m. The boys started at 8:30 p.m. once the girls finished. It was usually 10 p.m. before practice was done. They played their only four “home” games this season at the Sunnybrook Christian Home while the rest of the season was spent on the road. It was not a schedule for the faint at heart, but the Warrior family persevered.
“We have a motto, ‘No Excuses.’ We are going to be the toughest team and no one is going to outwork us so we make no excuses,” said head coach Josh Zeitz. “My theory is if there are two baskets and they are both ten feet, then we can practice basketball. And we do, very hard.”
Zeitz is in his sixth year at Clinton Christian. The Mountain Brook (Ala.) High graduate started coaching at his alma mater soon after graduating from University of Alabama-Birmingham. However, after two years he left the coaching profession to do other things. Soon after moving to Mississippi in 2001, he met his wife, Terre and the couple started a family. When their daughter Hannah began playing softball at age 5, the former college third baseman stepped back into a coaching role to lead Hannah’s travel team. The experience opened the door for an opportunity at CCA.
“I always knew this was what I wanted to do,” Zeitz said. “It just took a minute for God to put me in the right spot.”
He joined the staff in 2015 as the head of the boys basketball program and assistant with the baseball and softball programs. Three years later, he took over as head coach of the softball team guiding them to back-to-back state championships in 2019 and 2020. Last season, he took over the coaching responsibilities for the Lady Warriors basketball team and the girls played for the state championship for the first time in the history of the 13-year-old school.
This year, both teams made history by bringing home the school’s first state basketball championships. It was particularly special because of the bond that has formed between them.
“The culture of the basketball program is the same across both boys and girls,” said Zeitz, who also serves as athletic director. “The girls will stay and watch 30 minutes of the boys practice and the boys will get there 30 minutes early to watch the girls practice. Our boys and girls teams are very close. They root for each other.”
The Warriors began the season favored to make a run deep into the playoffs. The young group has played for four South State Championships in the last 5 years and returned several experienced players. Six members of their original nine-man roster have been a part of Zeitz’s program since the seventh grade. They are led by sophomore K.J. Sykes. The point guard is a four-year starter who averaged 19 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals per game this season. Transfer students Trey Alexander from Clinton High and Jayy Whitehead from Jackson Academy, were key on both ends of the floor. Another big offensive push came from senior Devin Collins who made 75 three-pointers during the season. The team went undefeated in 3A, finishing the regular season 29-6.
The Lady Warriors had a slightly more difficult road. They started the season 5-9 and COVID concerns caused them to lose five games over the Christmas Break. However, with five of the seven girls as members of the school’s championship softball team, they knew how to win. A key late season run landed them back into the state championship game with a regular season finish of 20-10.
The team’s balance makes them hard to defend. The team is led by Zeitz’s daughter Hannah, a senior point guard who had 94 assists this season. However, scoring could come from nearly any place on the court. Shooting guard, Maddie Weeks led the defensive effort and made 35 shots from outside the arc. Iris Farve, who earned offensive MVP honors for the district, averaged 10 points and seven rebounds. Sophomore Rilee Evans took home the district MVP honors after leading the scoring for most of the year. Those three got offensive help in the state championship from senior Grace Murray who put up 20 points and snagged 11 rebounds. Callie Abraham and Audrey Bryson also provided vital help from the bench.
For many, the idea of having the amount of success that CCA has had without a home court is unthinkable. Zeitz, however, believes the adversity of not having a gym was actually a strength.
“Our boys and girls teams are very close and I know it sounds crazy but I think this year it was a positive. It made us tougher and it brought us closer together.”
Zeitz became only the second coach in MAIS history to win both the girls and boys state basketball championships in the same year. Craig Dailey did it twice for Delta Academy, in 1999 and 2003. MAIS has had state basketball champions since 1971.
Both teams advanced to the quarterfinals of the MAIS Overall Tournament after first-round wins on Tuesday. The Lady Warriors will face Hartfield Academy Friday at 6 p.m. at Madison-Ridgeland Academy. The Warriors will play Starkville Academy Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at MRA.