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Former middle school coach watches Natchez girls excel

Willie Woods coached some of the MHSAA State Championship winning Natchez High School girls basketball team members when they were in junior high. Woods keeps a ball that was signed by all of the girls along with a shirt with all the girls on it. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Willie Woods coached some of the MHSAA State Championship winning Natchez High School girls basketball team members when they were in junior high. Woods keeps a ball that was signed by all of the girls along with a shirt with all the girls on it. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

 

NATCHEZ —In the midst of the Natchez Lady Bulldogs becoming the first Natchez High team to win back-to-back state championships in girls basketball, an older integral influence watched on in the stands, like a casual observer.

Willie Woods, who coached most of the girls at Robert Lewis Middle School, walked into the Mississippi Coliseum on March 13, roughly 30 minutes before the game with a few old coaching buddies. Woods, who is retired, watched from the stands like a proud papa, admiring the back-to-back championship feat. Following Natchez High’s 74-66 victory against West Jones, Woods got out of his seat, walked to his car and traveled back to Natchez without saying one word to the girls or Natchez head coach Alphaka Moore.

“I didn’t have to talk to them,” Woods said. “They know how I feel about them. We were like family. That was their moment. That was Coach Moore’s moment.”

Before Kirdis Clark was draining long-range shots and before Skylar Morgan roared like a lion on the court after making a game-changing play, these girls were practicing Monday through Saturday under Woods at the junior high level, Woods attested.

With assistant Bonita Hamilton by his side, Woods welcomed young Clark, Morgan, Ernesha Chatman, Zyaire Ewing, Taylor Argue, Rashonae Rice and others on the basketball court, and some were reluctant to join the middle school program.

“A lot of them really didn’t want to play,” Woods said. “But I just kept bugging them. They finally caved.”

And so Woods worked them like he worked many teams before them — Woods coached in Waterproof, Ferriday and Woodberry, Ga. Woods played the role of drill sergeant, forcing the girls to condition outside and scrimmage against the middle schools boys team, all while preaching the fundamentals of the game. So when Natchez fell behind by 18 points in the first half to West Jones, Woods didn’t fret. The way he viewed it — these girls are tough, and he had a part in making them that way.

“I wasn’t worried at all,” Woods said. “I knew they weren’t going to crack. I knew they would make a run. That’s just the type of group they are. Now, Coach Hamilton might have been sweating it.”

While Woods taught discipline, Hamilton served as the team’s mother, taking care of the team’s needs on a daily basis along with teaching Xs and Os with Woods.

“She was so important for everything we were trying to do,” Woods said.

Woods’ tough love mantra would be foreshadowing of sorts for the girls, as their high school coach Moore never struggled getting her team’s attention.

“She can get after them, can’t she?” Woods asked.

But before Natchez won two state championships, the Lady Bulldogs won multiple district titles with Woods. The best part for Woods, though, was getting to hand off the baton to Moore, who finished the race with state titles.

“Hiring her was the best thing Natchez has ever done,” Woods said. “After talking to her and watching her practice with the girls that first year, I told (Fred) Butcher that she was going to make big things happen.”

More than a week has passed and Woods still hasn’t reached out to the girls he coached for three years. It doesn’t mean he’s not proud, and it certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t love them like children. He made it known to the players how he felt about them for three consecutive years in middle school, and he believes in his heart that they understood Woods was in attendance to root them on.

“That’s the way I prefer it,” Woods said.