When the Enterprise School District Board of Trustees approved the hire of Leigh White as its new head softball coach last month, she became just the fourth woman to currently lead a public high school girls softball team in East Mississippi.
White spent the last 16 seasons as the coach of Pearl River Community College’s softball program, where she posted more than 380 victories. But for White, the joy came from cultivating the talent of young softball players who would one day go on to lead programs of their own.
“As a college coach, I always liked to see my former players go out and coach, and that’s something I think more programs need — females fulfilling roles if those females are available,” White said. “It was always a blessing to see my former players go out and give back to high school or collegiately or wherever because the knowledge that females have in this sport — playing it, being around it and the understanding of how to deal with females, also.”
The number of women employed as public high school coaches in East Mississippi is low. Of the 14 public high schools in The Meridian Star’s coverage area — which includes Lauderdale, Neshoba, Newton, Kemper and Clarke counties — and the combined 37 girls teams they field, only 22 percent of the girls sports teams have a woman leading one of the three team sports with the highest female participation: softball, soccer and basketball.
Four of the eight female coaches identified by The Meridian Star coach softball. The remaining four included three girls basketball coaches and a soccer coach who coaches both the boys and girls teams. Quitman High School employs two female coaches, while six schools have one female coach and the remaining seven schools have zero female head coaches in the three sports analyzed.
The Mississippi High School Activities Association doesn’t include cheerleading and dance as a sport, but rather consider it an activity, along with such activities as speech and debate, choir, band and ESports. Because of that, cheerleading, which employs many female coaches, wasn’t included in this analysis.
Clarkdale head softball coach Kate McCarty, hired in 2018, played at Tupelo High School before continuing her athletic career at Meridian and Itawamba community colleges. She remembers having only men as head coaches.
She attributes the large number of male softball head coaches to a new attachment to the sport. Lower classification schools with less staff draw from smaller coaching pools, so many programs double dip to fill the void.
Philadelphia High School head football coach David Frey, for example, doubles as the Lady Tornadoes' head coach for fast-pitch softball, which recently won the MHSAA Class 2A state title.
“More and more males are interested in coaching, and I found more baseball and football assistant coaches have ended up being an assistant for softball, at some point, and they end up falling in love with the sport,” McCarty said. “I know, my husband is one of those who is a baseball guy, but he’ll sit and watch college softball on TV all afternoon — he loves it.”
McCarty, who replaced former softball coach Emily Howard, joins Renee McLeod (tennis) and Carol Brookings (cross country) as Clarkdale’s female coaches. Clarkdale athletic director and head baseball coach Scott Gibson said the school consciously seeks women when filling vacancies.
“Without a doubt,” Gibson said. “A lot of times, you find women who are a great fit for our women’s sports, especially, and who can just relate to the girls better — relate to those female athletes. Of course, that’s not our overall determining factor, but a lot of times, that’s the best fit, and we don’t shy away from female coaches one bit if that’s the best thing for us.”
Although Enterprise's White is an advocate for more female representation in her profession, she doesn’t believe coaching jobs should be exclusively reserved for women. She pointed to the success of Newton County’s softball program, which won the MHSAA Class 4A state title in May, as an example.
“There are some great male coaches out there,” White said. “You have Justin Chaney over there at Newton County who’s done a phenomenal job for years. Sometimes, I feel like some females do get chosen over, but females also have to get out there and put their names out there, too. Don’t give up on it. I do think that in some instances, maybe, females do have a little more experiences from playing the game themselves to coach it.”
Elizabeth Hines recently concluded her first year as both the girls and boys head soccer coach at Quitman High School, where she was an assistant for one season before being promoted.
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After being deterred by a high school coach, Hines furthered her prep soccer career in under-18 recreation leagues before playing for two years at East Mississippi Community College. She recalled having just one female coach in her 16 years playing.
“It really hasn’t been a big deal for me,” Hines said. “Growing up, I played soccer in high school, and I had two guy coaches. My dad coached me in rec league, and when I played rec league soccer, I only had one female coach the whole time I played rec league soccer.”
Hines wasn’t hesitant to offer a reason why she believes so few women in the area hold head coaching positions.
“This is going to sound really bad, but it’s true,” she said. “Usually, the mom is the person taking care of the kids. They’re usually the person in the afternoons picking them up for school or whatever. Luckily, my parents keep my youngest boy — he’s five — for me to be able to do this. My husband works in the oil fields, and my oldest son is with me here at Quitman, and he plays soccer.”
Hines’ coaching obligations don’t just include the school’s soccer teams. She’s also Quitman’s debate and dance team coach, as well as the director for the school's drama program’s theatrical performances.
“I do everything, but the reason I do everything is because if I just had to rely on my base pay to get by, there’s no way I could do it,” Hines said.
Over the last 10 months, Hines said she has logged 552 hours additional hours outside the classroom, 153 of which have been dedicated to soccer. Eighty-three have been devoted to games, 34 to practice, 24 to scheduling and field prep, and 12 for uniform selections and tryouts.
While Hines has been fortunate enough to have the assistance of her parents in looking after her youngest son, she said others in the profession aren’t as lucky. The absence of that support can deter teachers early in their careers.
“I think that’s a big problem, a lot of these coaches are moving to areas where they don’t have family, or these teachers are moving to areas where they don’t have family,” Hines said.
A wider issue
In just two seasons, Meridian girls head basketball coach, Deneshia Faulkner has accumulated a 35-19 record. The Lady Wildcats went 22-5 last season and reached the second round of the MHSAA Class 6A postseason, where they were defeated by eventual state champion Pearl.
Faulkner arrived in Meridian after coaching MHSAA Class 2A’s Heidelberg for five seasons. As Faulkner progressed through the ranks, she said she routinely looked up to men as role models — including Meridian boys head basketball coach Ron Norman — due to the lack of women at all levels in the sport.
“Coaching, period, for a long time has been a male-dominated industry,” Faulkner said. “We’re kind of breaking out a little bit. We have a female coach now who’s an assistant in the NBA.”
Faulkner doesn’t believe the lack of representation is exclusive to high schools.
“It’s at the college level,” she said. “They have interviews all the time with college coaches about it. It’s one of the biggest topics of discussion on the college level.”
Since she didn’t have any female head coaches to serve as role models, Faulkner has implemented a mentorship program of sorts for her assistants. Between her junior high and high school programs, each assistant position is held by a woman.
But she’s taken it even further.
“It means a lot, so much in fact that that was one of my interview questions when I was interviewing these coaches,” Faulkner said. “I was looking for coaches who wanted to, in the near future, be head coaches. I wasn’t looking for someone who just liked basketball or wanted to be around it. I was looking for people who had an interest in becoming their own head coach.”
Kristin Chaney retired from her position as East Central Community College’s head softball coach in 2018 to pursue a career in the private sector. Chaney accumulated 233 wins, and her teams appeared in the postseason six times during her six years as head coach. Chaney was a two-sport star at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Chaney played basketball for current Golden Eagles head coach Joye Lee-McNelis and softball for former USM coaches Gay McNutt and Howard Dobson, who is LSU’s head softball coach.
“I didn’t have a preference,” Chaney said. “Coach McNelis was probably more demanding than my male coaches. I didn’t care who got in my face, so in that sense, it didn’t bother me. But you can see where some females don’t want another female in their face.”
While Chaney said she didn’t favor one gender over the other when it came to who offered instruction, she did say she thinks some women might be more inclined to gravitate toward a male coach, due to their paternal natures.
She pointed to two of her former players, Kayla Robertson and Madalyn McMahon, as examples. The duo played softball at Neshoba Central High School for head coach Trae Embry.
“Kayla (Robertson) and (Madalyn) McMahon absolutely loved Coach Embry — I mean, loved him,” Chaney said. “And I think, for them, it was a nurturing father figure that they could always go to and they could always count on. I can say this about them, too — they had a mother figure in their lives who didn’t miss hardly a ball game when they played at East Central. I think they responded to both either way."
A woman's difference
McMahon concluded her East Central softball career in 2018. She now attends Mississippi State University and will graduate next spring with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. For the former Neshoba Central standout, the contrast in coaching styles between men and women occurred off the softball diamond.
“My playing for two years for Coach Chaney, it was kind of different from having a male coach, because if anything was going on personally, she would always understand,” McMahon said. “I could always go to her and talk to her. Whereas, if I was playing for a male coach, I would feel weird talking to him about my personal issues and stuff going on. But with her, she always understood, and I just knew that I always had somebody to talk to when I needed help.”
McMahon said having a coach of the same gender became beneficial once she attended college and attempted to balance adulthood with being a student-athlete. The opportunity to speak with Coach Chaney whenever an issue arose was reassuring.
“When I was in high school, I really didn’t think I had that many personal issues,” she said. “So, with Coach Embry, it was just a conversation we had. But if I had personal issues — getting older and going to college and playing JuCo softball — she was just always there, and it was good to have another female to talk to.”
McMahon hopes to be part of the solution in the future.
Upon graduation, she plans to teach and one day have a softball program of her own. Her two years playing for Chaney and Hill, an East Central assistant, didn’t just teach her how to become a better player, they also stirred a desire to be a support system and mentor for young female players.
“Softball has always been a really big part of my life growing up,” McMahon said. “I’ve had a bunch of amazing coaches from Craig Martin to Trae Embry and then Kristin Chaney and Megan Hill. My last year at East Central really hit me hard because those two women — Coach Chaney and Coach Hill — had a really big impact on my life, and it made me realize that I didn’t want to give up softball this early and that I wanted to coach and teach other girls softball. Not just softball, but about life, like they did for me.”