By Billy Watkins
This was Amanda Hatch, the coach:
Her Leake Academy girls basketball team had just lost a fight-to-the-finish against Jackson Prep, 37-34, in the MAIS Overall championship game Wednesday night at Mississippi College in Clinton.
She told her 20 players in the dressing room that she was proud of them, that things don’t always go your way and thanked them for leaving every bead of sweat they had on the court all season that produced a 37-4 record and a Class 5A state championship.
As they gathered in the center of the room for one final team huddle, she saw her words hadn’t hit home.
“No, sit back down,” she told them.
This time she was more to the point: “We’re not gonna walk out of here with our heads down and tears rolling down our faces. We’ve won more trophies this season than most players win in their lifetimes. Keep this loss in perspective.”
Must have worked. A half hour later, Leake’s splendid junior point guard Miriam Prince said the loss stung badly and wished she could’ve done more than her game-high 18 points.
Then she said, “I can’t wait to get my nails done. You know, that’s a girl thing. Something happens, good or bad, you go get your nails done. Everything will be all right.”
This was Amanda Hatch, the mommy:
As soon as she left the dressing room, she spotted her husband, Clint, and their two children — Noah, 7, and Aniyah Grace, 3.
Aniyah Grace had a grin on her face that said, “I missed you today, Mommy.” Hatch grabbed her up and Aniyah Grace nestled in. Noah said simply, “I know you lost, Mommy. I’m sorry.”
The couple adopted Noah from Honduras at age two. They adopted Aniyah Grace from the U.S. when she was just six days old.
“I used to take every loss so, so hard,” Hatch said. “It would eat on me until we were able to play again and win. And don’t get me wrong, losses still hurt. But as soon as I see them, I switch to mama mode.
“Clint and I have always had a soft spot in our hearts for children. This is the way God gave them to us. People talk about how we changed their lives. I prefer to look at how they’ve changed ours. There is no way to measure it.”
The morning after the loss, I talked with Hatch by phone from Madden. She was in coach mode at school, replaying the game in her mind.
“We’re super disappointed. That’s to be expected,” said Hatch, whose head coaching record stands at 401-94 in 13 seasons. She won her first overall and Leake’s sixth in 2021.
“We battled back from 10 points down in the first quarter to go up by three (midway of the fourth quarter),” she said. “But they went right back down and tied the game, and that was deflating as bad as you hate to say it.
“If I could do anything over, I would’ve taken a time out with about 20 seconds left (and trailing by two) to make sure we got the shot we wanted. But sometimes it’s hard to decide whether to call a time out or just let them go.”
She gave credit to Prep, especially Kennedie Sanders and Julia Stradinger. They scored 20 of Prep’s 37 points after averaging a combined seven points for the season. Prep coach Michael McAnally, who won an Overall as a player at Prep in 1996, now has 603 boys and girls victories in 21 seasons. This was Prep’s first Overall title since 2006. The Patriots finished 37-2.
Sports is filled with ironies. The school Leake lost to Wednesday night gave Hatch her first head-coaching job. She was 117-62 in five seasons there.
And while coaching at Prep in 2013, Hatch faced the lowest point in her life so far. Doctors discovered a fist-sized mass in her chest. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of surviving. She was 31. “And we were in the process of adopting,” she said.
She underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and 20 rounds of radiation. Eight area teams played in jamboree named “Hoops for Hatch,” to help raise money to offset her medical bills.
“I think back to that and I’m still amazed at the support and love so many people showed,” Hatch said. “We always had more food at the house than we could possibly eat. People were so giving.”
In 2016, Hatch was pronounced cancer free.
“I’m so fortunate to come out the other side of this,” she said. “I had my faith and I trusted God through it all. I remember praying, ‘You told us to adopt and now this … ’ But all I know is, every time I got into the car, Mandisa’s song ‘Overcomer’ was playing on the radio, no matter what station my radio was on.”
“Don’t quit, don’t give in
You’re an overcomer”
“I know now that whatever path God sets you on, He will see you through it,” she said.
Hatch left Prep prior to the 2014-15 season to take over at Leake, her alma mater and one of the state’s proudest programs. The school draws students from all around — Philadelphia, Forest, Carthage, Edinburg, Attala County and small communities throughout.
Hatch was a star player on Leake’s 1998-99 team that went 46-0 her junior season and built a 63-game winning streak that stretched into the 1999-2000 season.
Since returning, her teams are 284-32 in eight seasons. The Rebelettes will take a 65-game home winning streak into next season.
“I love being back here,” Hatch said. “This is where I learned to love basketball. I have so many memories here, and I know what the game means to this school and the community.”
Girls have a basketball in their hands starting in early elementary. The program was started years ago by legendary coach Doyle Wolverton and it continues on.
The group is called Little Dribblers or Tomorrow’s Terrors, take your pick.
“I think it plays a huge factor in our success,” said Hatch, who teaches geometry and pre-Algebra. “We introduce them to the game, and by the time they’re in the fourth or fifth grade they can dribble with either hand, behind their back. And they know the high school coach is watching them and is looking to them to be the next great players at Leake.”
Les Triplett, a longtime coach and now the MAIS director of activities, said Hatch “has done a great job and seems to be a coach that really encourages her players during games. I’m sure there is a time when she has to get after them but not during games.
“The young kids’ program makes a huge difference for that program. Plus, playing at Leake, in that gym, is intimidating. I don’t care what anybody says.”
And next year’s squad should make another run at the Overall. The top seven players on this year’s team return, including the point guard Prince, one of 14 MAIS players to already surpass the 2,000-point mark. (One of those 14 is Hatch.)
Hatch will give the players off until early April. They will work on conditioning and individual skills, then attend team camps and shootouts this summer. They will have July off, then begin another journey together when school starts.
Hatch will be mostly in mama mode for a while. She and Clint will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary in July, and they’ll enjoy Noah and Aniyah Grace growing and exploring.
Probably, part of the time, with a basketball in their little hands.