Lance White didn’t expect to be in Columbus on Wednesday night.
But when he heard what was happening to one of his former baseball coaches, he decided he couldn’t afford not to be in town.
The former member of the New Hope High School baseball team (1994-97) was in Columbus on Wednesday night along with more than 200 others to show their support at Trojan Field for embattled NHHS baseball coach Stacy Hester.
The veteran baseball coach said Friday he was told by Lowndes County School District Superintendent Mike Halford that the Lowndes County School District Board appears ready to deliver a 5-0 vote that he not return as New Hope’s coach.
Hester said Halford told him he wouldn’t recommend he be retained based on that expected vote.
The school board could vote June 12 at its next scheduled meeting to determine Hester’s fate.
According to a sheet at the entrance to Trojan Field, 224 people signed in to listen to Hester speak and to hear the thoughts of several other people.
Hester, who has won 551 games and three state titles in 18 years as coach at New Hope, opened the meeting at 8:15 p.m. and spoke for 13 minutes. He thanked everyone “from the bottom of my heart” for showing up to support him and said all he has tried to do in his time as a coach is to instill discipline in kids and teach them how to do things the right way. He said he never has tried to be a coach who caters to the wishes of parents, which he admitted could be part of the reason why he is embroiled in this controversy.
“Winning is fun, but it is so important to see kids come through your program and to act right and to become good citizens and good people. That is what I get excited about. Seeing all of these people come out here has been a blessing for me. Like I told them, I can always take this night and my players and what we have done in the past 18 years and be proud of it because in my heart I know what I have done.
“If my time has passed because I am old school, I can live with it. I want to be here to coach, but if it works out that I am not, I can’t apologize for anything I have done. I hate that I have been tough on kids, but, then again, deep down, I know what my intentions were. It seems like nowadays sometimes your intentions are never even looked at. It is like people are going to judge you on what they hear, not what they actually see.”
White, Chris Herring, who played at New Hope High from 1991-92, Jeff Hunter (1994-97), and Shane Bazzell (1993-98) were just some of the former players and people who spoke in support of Hester.
The former players said Hester was demanding and that they even hated him at times in their high school careers. But each one said that the lessons they have learned from Hester have made them better people.
Herring, who spoke Saturday morning to The Dispatch with his brother, Kenny Tice, followed Hester and said the situation is bringing the community closer together, not pulling it apart. He said he supports what Hester has done as coach at New Hope High and that the school would “lose a big part of this community” if Hester is not retained.
He said Hester is guilty of being a disciplinarian and has hurt the feelings of players, including his, but he said Hester always got the best out of him and taught him valuable lessons.
Herring also encouraged the people at the meeting to call or to write letters to Halford and to the school members to let them know how they felt.
“I can’t control how the board members are going to vote, but Mike Halford is a Trojan and he is going to do what is right,” Herring said.
White, who lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was working in Arkansas and had planned to be in Columbus later this week. But he decided to change his schedule and his route after hearing of the apparent momentum against Hester so he could be in town to show his support of his former coach.
“I, like many other kids, when I came into this program I was headed in the wrong direction,” White said. “The first two and a half years I was here I didn’t like Stacy Hester any more than anybody else that says that they do not like him. Either it was a point of maturity, or if it took that long to sink in, halfway through our 1996 season, I began to realize I was part of something special and I bought in. I gained more in that last half of that year and the next year than I had in the first two and a half simply because I was open to what he was doing.”
White said every person who is part of the New Hope High program puts in “blood, sweat, and tears” to make it one of the best in the nation. He said he is proud to be a part of such a tradition-rich program and that it would be a “grave mistake” if people overlooked all of the good things that have happened and based their decisions on the negative things.
“I wasn’t surprised (when he first heard the talk against Hester),” White said. “There have been voices that have tried to do that every year he has been here. There is always a disgruntled member of the community or a disgruntled parent, but there can’t be but nine guys play, 10 with a designated hitter. There always are people that are unhappy, but a coach that has never made an enemy is probably an ineffective coach.”
Hunter, who also played baseball at Mississippi State and owns AdvantEdge Sports, a multi-sport training and exercise facility in Tupelo, doesn’t like how politics have become such a big part of every sport. He said he has vowed never to be a high school coach because he would follow Hester’s principles and play the best players and not cater to the wishes or pressures from parents or fans.
Hunter said people should look at the complex Hester has helped build and see all of the signs of accomplishment on the outfield wall and remember all of the good things he has done in 18 years.
“Who are you going to find to coach a better high school baseball program? Nobody,” Hunter said. “If he leaves, New Hope will be off the map.”
Hunter works with youth baseball players on a travel team and at his training facility. He said baseball has changed in recent years in that so many families pay to have their son play on travel teams. He said those families might get a false impression of their son(s) because they get a lot of recognition and many times have coached their children.
As a result, parents and players experience a change when they leave that comfort zone.
Hunter said Hester provides an environment that prepares players for college baseball and for life after sports.
“You can take baseball and relate it to almost everything in life,” Hunter said. “I learned here that when running foul poles that if every person doesn’t touch that line, you won’t win. You have to have everyone running the same distance. If you come this close (holding his hand several inches away from an imaginary line), or you will come this close to the championship.”
Hester reiterated he would welcome a “plan of improvement” from Halford or the school board. He said he would look at those guidelines and change his ways if they were things he could agree to.
Hester won’t be in town next month to attend the board meeting. He will be in Oklahoma the second week of June as coach of the Mississippi team of all-stars that will compete in the Junior Sun Belt Classic. He doesn’t feel his absence from the school board meeting June 12 will hurt his case because he only can ask to be heard and to tell his side of the story and explain any actions people might find disagreeable.
“I have made mistakes. Everybody does,” Hester said. “Are there things I would go back and change? Sure I would. But I am not going to change the fact that I have tried to make kids do the right things and make them accountable.
“I am overwhelmed by the amount of support, and I thank them for that. I wish people would be open minded about my future and know that I have every good intention. Sometimes it doesn’t come across that way, but I can’t apologize for putting a good product
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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