NHS coach Irving succumbs to lengthy illness

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 6, 2004

&uot;… But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.&uot; &045; Isaiah 40:31, New Revised Standard Version

Mary Jean Irving was the biological mother of two children, Brenza Renea Irving Jones and Albert D. Irving Jr.

However, the number of those who consider the Natchez High School girls basketball head coach a parent is infinite. That’s why her death at 63 of a lengthy illness Thursday has sucker-punched this community and ones around it.

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&uot;We want to thank everybody that was a part of her life and so supportive during her illness,&uot; Jones said. &uot;We want everybody to know that we’re grateful to God. She was only 63, but every one of those years was a blessing from the Lord.&uot;

The Lady Bulldogs scheduled game against Jefferson County at 5 p.m. today is still on.

&uot;The kids and coaches feel like she would want us to continue,&uot; Natchez athletic director Robert Cade said.

Irving, who spent the last seven weeks at Oschner’s Clinic outside of New Orleans, became the first black female to be inducted into the Mississippi Coaches Hall of Fame in July of 1997.

The 33-year coaching veteran won 66 percent of her games (640-331), three state championships &045; including one in Louisiana &045; and served as head coach or administrative coach in four Mississippi/Alabama All-Star games.

The pinnacle moments of the Adams County native’s professional career were the state championships she won at three separate schools.

In 1980, already 10 years into the job, Irving led the girls team at Newellton (La.) High School to a Louisiana High School Athletic Association crown.

While winning multiple South State, Big 8 and region titles with the Lady Rams, an opportunity she took after the 1980 championship season, Irving finally led North Natchez to a state title in 1986.

Seven years later, as head coach at consolidated Natchez High, Irving won another Mississippi High School Activities Association ring with the Lady Bulldogs.

&uot;There was never a point where I wanted to quit,&uot; said current Davidson head coach Sonya Brown Singleton, who played on that 1993 championship team. &uot;We lost four games my senior year and she gave us that verse (Isaiah 40:31) and she helped motivate us. That carried our team.&uot;

Cade first met Irving while both were working on their master’s degrees at Alcorn during the mid-1970s.

He said Irving’s influence was a big reason he became the head coach in Tensas Parish at Waterproof, a neighboring community to Newellton.

As godmother to his daughter Robbie, Irving was part of Cade’s family &045; as she had been with so many others &045; for more than 30 years.

&uot;Mrs. Irving was old school. She was a coach and at the same time a parent,&uot; he said. &uot;She believed in doing right whenever you were representing the school. She was concerned with every aspect of her children’s lives.&uot;

Cade said that even in illness, Irving still spoke to the team, stressing at times the importance of fighting through adversities and never growing complacent.

That advice, alone, was enough motivation neither to postpone nor cancel tonight’s matchup with Jefferson County.

&uot;It’s hard. All I can do right now is pray for strength,&uot; said Jefferson County head coach Flora McKnight, a longtime Irving friend. &uot;I look up to her as a person and as a coach. She inspired her ball players. They had every thing you want a basketball player to have. They gave you the effort. Coach was good leader.&uot;

McKnight, who graduated from South Natchez in 1975, credited Irving for peaking her interest in the game of basketball.

McKnight still holds the Lady Tigers win over Natchez in 1998, her first year as head coach, as the biggest of her young career.

&uot;Mrs. Irving was probably the best disciplinarian coach I’ve ever been around,&uot; said Steve McClatchy, who assisted Irving for the past four years. &uot;She got on them a lot, but it was all motivated out of love and that’s what we told the kids today. She always wanted them to do the right thing not only on the basketball court, but grades-wise and in life.&uot;

McClatchy, who helped coach the team for three games in Irving’s absence during last season, will remain on as head coach of the Lady Bulldogs.

Players, coaches and faculty met with counselors Thursday, as the news came as a shock despite their fearless leader’s long battle, McClatchy said.

&uot;She was always a mother figure for her team. She lived for her children and her team,&uot; said Alcorn head coach Sam West, who coached the North Natchez boys from 1984-87 while Irving led her teams. &uot;She was always concerned with the young ladies’ well being. She was a workaholic and a winner.&uot;

West will miss the wonderful fisherman he knew. Colleagues will miss a deeply religious friend, who never stopped making her teams better people while experiencing on-court succees.

And players will miss their surrogate mother, a confidant who continued to love them unconditionally, even after they no longer wore a jersey and a pair of shorts for her.

&uot;My experiences now reflect what she taught me,&uot; Singleton said. &uot;Not having that person to go to when I face adversities. Not having that person to be honest with me. I’ll miss that.&uot;