By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The Meridian Star
In his 12 years at the helm, Hillary Allen's Meridian Community College women's basketball team had accomplished a lot of things.
The Eagles had won and won a lot. They routinely were the team to beat in the Miss-Lou Conference and as such, MCC was a constant presence at the NJCAA Region 23 tournament. However, one thing evaded MCC's grasp. The Eagles hadn't won the region and advanced to the national tournament since back-to-back trips in 1999-2000. That ended in March in The Meridian Star's No. 10 sports story of the year.
“It just seemed like it was the right combination at the right time for us to be successful,” Allen, who retired in August, said. “We felt like we dominated the Miss-Lou Conference all the years we played in it, and certainly we felt like dominated the Region 23 with a streak of eight straight years of playing in the region tournament and 10 out of the 12 years. So we felt like we had done a number of things there.”
Getting over the hump wasn't easy. But it is easy for Allen to pinpoint where MCC learned what it would take to get through the rugged region tournament. In addition to playing the best Mississippi and Louisiana had to offer in the region and conference, the Eagles' schedule provided the opportunity to test themselves early and often. That tough slate really began in the Georgia Perimeter tournament, a field that included four teams that qualified for the national tournament.
“We played the best team out of Alabama, the best team in Georgia, the best team in Tennessee and certainly we played the best teams available in Mississippi and Louisiana,” Allen said. “And we also played the best team out of Kansas and Colorado. And to think that little old Meridian is competing with some of the best teams throughout the United States is very special.
“I think one of our keys was that strength of schedule. The last few years we had went to the Georgia Perimeter tournament at Thanksgiving and teams in that tournament had always been competitive. For us to go over there and compete with those teams, it kind of gave us the confidence that we could compete with anybody in our region.”
Even with that tough schedule, though, MCC didn't begin to resemble the championship squad it would become until late in the season. There, a lineup change, triggered the title run. That trigger came in the presence of former Meridian High star Reyada Stinner's exertion into the starting five. With Stinner taking over the point guard position alongside sophomore stalwarts Chasity Kearney, Norianna Haynes and Kia Morris, the Eagles took flight.
“There's no question,” Allen added. “Rere was the key to the whole season. I told her that the very first day she walked onto the court that we were going to go as far as she would take it, and as soon as she learned to be a college point guard, she was going to be huge for us.”
And Stinner playing the key cog didn't surprise Allen. It was something he expected for more than a year, back to her senior season at MHS.
“I went to her one day and told her that she was going to be my starting point guard next year, that she didn't know it yet but she was going to be my starting point guard,” he added.
Even with the freshman spark plug, though, the Eagles were definitely led by a deep and talented sophomore class. Haynes, the Northeast Lauderdale product, and Kearney each topped 1,000 points in their MCC careers and Arnissa Galloway was one of the top players in the region prior to getting injured last season.
They were the foundation on which the breakthrough was built.
“That was a special group of sophomores to finish up with,” Allen said. “They came in and had been extremely successful – two conference championships, two region championship games.”
And those Eagles also provided the perfect opportunity for Allen, who also coached at the University of Tampa, Edison Community College and Chipola Junior College, to walk away after 23 seasons and 424 wins – 249 coming at MCC.
“It was special,” he said. “I was looking to retire and really, had been looking to retire for three or four years. And really, I was probably looking for that one really special year to take a team to Kansas or to take a team to the national tournament and all the special joy that comes with that.
“It was a special group. And that was a special, special moment.”