Photo by Robert Smith

By Billy Watkins

      When you want to know what makes a high school coach successful for 28 years, you go to parents and former players.

       So I phoned Amy Hancock, whose daughter,  Riley, was one of the senior leaders on last year’s MRA girls basketball team that won the MAIS Overall title.

       I asked her how coach Stephen Force has won 742 games over 28 seasons — 22 of them at MRA — and once again has his Lady Patriots (32-2) poised for another run at Overall next week.

       Hancock paused and took a deep breath before answering.

       “For one thing, he coaches the girls really hard. He does not bend,” she said. “I’ll be honest, playing for Coach Force is not for the faint of heart. But it’s sorta like childbirth. The reward is worth it.

       “He made Riley a better player than I ever thought she could be. He also made her a better person, a mentally tougher person. I never have to worry about her getting her feelings hurt by an employer or a peer. She learned a lot of life lessons.”

       There was a time when Hancock, whose husband, Roger, was a kick returner for Ole Miss in the late 1980s, wondered if Force was being too hard on the girls. She phoned Heritage Academy coach Miriam “Moe” Bell, who played on Force’s 2007 Overall title team and went on to play at Delta State.

       Bell’s advice: “Trust the process.”

       “I’m so glad we did,” Hancock said.


       One of the toughest chores for a basketball coach in Mississippi is to win an MAIS Overall  title.

       Top-notch teams aren’t confined to the larger classifications in this state. It’s a week-long free-for-all each February at Mississippi College.

       Last year’s Overall title was Force’s third. Only two active girls coaches have more:  Jackson Academy’s Jan Sojourner (six) and Pillow’s Durwin Carpenter (four).

       “I don’t really think a lot about winning a fourth,” Force said. “I know it’s a possibility and hope it happens.

       “I really want it for the players. I have girls come back and tell me that winning Overall is their greatest high school memory. And to see last year’s team do it and celebrate together, that’s what it’s all about.”

       The Lady Patriots can qualify for the Overall by beating JA in the 6A state tournament at MRA Friday afternoon or winning the consolation game Saturday.

Photo by Robert Smith

       Force is particularly fond of this team. The players are close on the court and off.

       “And that’s not always the case,” Force said. “These girls really play for each other. They don’t want to let each other down.

       “And we have the luxury if one girl is off one night, others will step up. We’ve got five or six players who can score 15 to 20 points on any given night.”

       The team’s leading scorer is freshman Anna Morgan Anderson, who averages 13 a game. Sophomore Presley Hughes averages seven points, six assists and six rebounds.

       “Our team last year had such a great will to win that we were able to overcome averaging 21 turnovers a game,” Force said. “We knew that’s something we had to be better at this year, and we have  cut it to 13 or 14 a game. We handle the ball better and move without the ball better.”

       Complacency after winning last year’s Overall hasn’t been an issue because “we have a lot of girls helping us this year who didn’t get to play much a year ago. It’s almost like a while different group,” he said.


       Force, 51, is aware of his reputation as a disciplinarian.

       “I think I’ve changed in some ways,” he said. “Early on, I was labeled as a yeller and a screamer on the sideline — but never at officials.

       “People ask me how I approach coaching girls, and I tell them I coach them just like I would boys. You make sure you get your point across, and once they realize that you care about them and you’re only trying to make them better, it doesn’t bother them as much.”

       Lauren Stratton, a high school math teacher at MRA who played on the 2007 championship team, said she kids Force that he’s “getting soft” the longer he coaches.

       “I stay on him,” Stratton said, laughing. “I saw where he gave the team a day off, and I was like ‘A day off? You never gave us a day off. What’s going on with you? Are you ok?’ ”

       Stratton and Force didn’t hit it off at first, and it had nothing to do with Force’s coaching style.

       Force had the unenviable duty of replacing Richard Duease, now the winningest coach in Mississippi history. Duease had coached the boys and girls teams for 22 years. Stratton was entering eighth grade when Duease decided to coach the boys only.

       “I had known Coach Duease since kindergarten,” Stratton said. “I was so close to getting a chance to play for him, and Coach Force comes in. I was angry. I don’t think I looked (Force) in the eye for a year.

       “But he soon set a tone for our high school team, and I realized, ‘OK, it’s going to be very similar to the way Coach Duease ran it.’

       “Coach Duease wouldn’t let you settle on being mediocre. He saw beyond what you could see for yourself. And Coach Force is like that. I was intense, competitive and pretty fast. But I wasn’t the greatest basketball player. But by my senior year, Coach Force had developed me into a decent player.”

       Stratton played soccer at Mississippi State and coached the sport at MRA for eight seasons.     

       “I used a lot of the same things Coach Force taught me,” Stratton said. “If there was a player I saw potential in and maybe she didn’t see it, I stayed on her.”

       One of those players was Evie Ewing, who now plays at Ole Miss.


       Force has plenty of “plays” in his repertoire.

       “But it’s not about teaching plays,” he said. “I want to teach them how to play when things break down. And you do that by working on individual development.”

       He graduated from Southern Baptist Educational Center in Olive Branch in 1990.

       “I loved basketball,” he said.

Photo by Robert Smith

       Force, a married father of two, played two years at Northwest Community College, then walked on at Ole Miss when Rob Evans was the coach. He eventually transferred to Delta State and found time to help coach at Indianola Academy.

       He was a graduate assistant in 1996 at DSU when the Lady Statesmen finished fourth in the Division II national tournament.

       He served as head coach at Starkville Academy for six seasons before coming to MRA.

       “It’s been great to be on the staff with Coach Duease,” he said. “We don’t talk X’s and O’s much, but what we do talk about is how to approach a situation with our team or an individual player.”

       Away from basketball, Force enjoys hunting and fishing. He’s looking forward to the upcoming turkey season.

       But first, he has unfinished business on the court.

       He will remind his players that their goal was never to go undefeated or set individual records. It was to win the Overall championship.

       That is why his teams play about 20 games each summer against great competition across Mississippi. It’s why they travel to tournaments during Christmas break and go against teams they’ve likely never played before.

       “It helps to play teams you’re not familiar with,” he says. “And it’s not just about the basketball games. It helps build camaraderie. All of it helps prepare us for right now.”