By Robert Wilson
Bill Ball has been a head boys basketball coach for 24 seasons – 22 seasons in high school (Hartfield, Jackson Academy and Starkville Academy) and 2 seasons at University of Arkansas-Monticello – but he’s never had a team do what his Hartfield Academy Hawks have done so far this season.
Ball’s team has won all 15 of its games so far and we are almost into the new year. No hiccups, no off nights. Fifteen wins. No losses.
And this undefeated team is being led by a coach who had definite plans to get out of coaching two years when he moved his family back to the Metro Jackson area from Starkville. That was the second time he had plans to get out of coaching.
“When I left JA (Jackson Academy after 18 seasons), my plan was to explore professional opportunities outside of coaching,” Ball said. “I laugh and tell people this is the second coaching job I’ve had after I said I would never coach again (Starkville Academy was the first after leaving JA in 2018). I guess the Lord had other plans for me because I was set to buy a business, but (Hartfield head of school) David Horner called and persuaded me to coach at Hartfield. I’ve enjoyed every second of it. Hartfield is a special place with great people and has been a real blessing me and my family.”
Ball knows basketball. He has 594 high school victories at JA, Starkville Academy and Hartfield. Ball won 529 games, two Overall Tournament titles (2004 and 2006) and four state titles at JA. Ball, a Starkville Academy and Mississippi State graduate, was an assistant at MSU for two seasons and at Arkansas Monticello and Itawamba CC for one season each before becoming a head coach.
His first team at Hartfield finished 24-8. He has two returning starters – his son, Wiggy, a 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard, and Silas Clark, a 6-4 senior forward – from last year’s team. Ball is averaging a team-high 13 points and a team-high eight assists per game. He had 24 points and 11 assists against Madison St. Joseph and has had two 13 assists games as well this season. Clark averages 11 points and five rebounds.
The other three starters are 5-10 senior guard Daelin Harper, 6-6 junior forward and Terry High transfer Austin Ratliff and 5-10 freshman guard Pepper Wilson. Ratliff is the third Hartfield player who averages in double figures at 11 points and 6 rebounds per game.
Hartfield has a deep bench. Senior forward and Madison Central transfer Bo Henderson, junior forward Eli Anderson, junior guards Andrew Lee and Wyatt Collier and sophomore guards Graham Jackson and Kenzy West give the Hawks key minutes. Another key reserve, sophomore guard Caleb Warden, broke his leg earlier this season.
“I attribute our improvement to a couple of things,” Ball said. “We only have one football player on our team this year (West) and so we have been able to shoot a lot and skill work in preseason. The other big benefit is we have been committed to the weight room, lifting three days a week, even in season, which has been huge for us.”
Ball has settled into his new home in Rankin County.
“I have a better understanding of the culture at Hartfield and the role athletics plays in the academic and spiritual development of our student athletes,” Ball said. “I think that our players understand that everything we do in our basketball program has a reason and purpose.”
Hartfield has won every close game, wins by three points each over Madison St. Joseph and Memphis Home Education Association, four points each over Oak Forest, La., and Christian Collegiate, five points over Murrah, six points over Rossville Christian and seven points over Bayou Academy. Ball hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat St. Joe in double overtime after Clark hit a 3-pointer to send the game into double overtime. Hartfield also escaped Oak Forest in overtime at Oak Forest.
“There are several reasons we are off to a fast start, but probably the biggest is the pace we are playing,” said Ball, who is assisted by Chris Goodman. “We are really pushing the basketball in transition and even in half court playing with a great tempo. Another is our commitment to the defensive end of the court. We have had a lot of big stops and rebounds, especially late in close games.”
“I feel like we have improved since last year because we are more familiar with each other and our chemistry has gotten better the more we play together,” Wiggy Ball said. “I’ve put on more weight since last year and I’m able to match the physicality of the high school level this season.”
“The bond we have created in the locker room as a team has helped us,” Clark said, “whether we need to pick each other up or just helping each other on assignments. We have great team chemistry while some younger guys have stepped up and the returning players have improved overall while maturing. I was able to put some weight on from lifting weights during the off season and that just gives me an edge, becoming faster and stronger.”
Horner – who played basketball at Hattiesburg High and Mississippi College before becoming a high school coach then into administration – had a good feeling about Ball when he hired him. He and Ball faced each other from 2007-2014 when Horner was head coach at Jackson Prep and Ball was at JA.
“Coach Ball has been extremely successful at every place he’s served,” Horner said. “I not only can speak to Coach Ball’s ability from the perspective of a basketball fan and observer, but I also spent many years competing directly against his teams as a coach as well. It is an understatement to say his teams were always prepared and he maximized whatever level of talent was on his teams. I can affirm from personal experience that Bill’s approach to leading our teams is one that fits with the mindset, mission, and expectations that represent our school. He’s an intense competitor with a proven track record of developing teams and players, mentoring young men, and building a community of support for a program.”
Ball and Hartfield go for win No. 16 Thursday against MHSAA Class 6A Center Hill High at the New Hope tournament in Columbus. The Hawks play MHSAA Class 5A Columbus High Friday at New Hope.
Hartfield begins MAIS Class 6A conference play in January. The opener is at Parklane Academy Jan. 10 in McComb. Many say that this year could the toughest and most talented league in the history of the MAIS. The 6A favorite is Madison-Ridgeland Academy and Ole Miss signee Josh Hubbard, Mississippi’s No. 1 rated player and one of the Top 20 point guards in the country. But many others, including defending Overall Tournament champion Jackson Prep and 2022 Overall runner-up JA, are possible league champions.
“We have played a tough schedule against many bigger schools to get ready for conference play,” Ball said. “It’s going to a dogfight. The league is talented from top to bottom. I’m looking forward to seeing how we do.”
Said Wiggy Ball: “I think starting off 15-0 will help our confidence substantially from the standpoint we can play with anybody.”
So far not only has Hartfield played with anyone, but the Hawks have also defeated every team on their schedule.