ABERDEEN — Aberdeen boys basketball coach Roy Hazzle stands on the baseline of Roy Hazzle Gymnasium barking out pointers to four different players on one offensive set.
The 59-year-old Aberdeen native is working just as hard as he did on his first day of employment, Halloween of 1977. The hard work continues to pay off as the Bulldogs are headed back to the Mississippi Coliseum to make a sixth-ever appearance in the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s state championship tournament.
Playing for this season’s Class 3A crown, the Bulldogs (26-6) will meet Kemper County (26-8) in a 10:30 a.m. semifinal matchup Saturday morning. Two wins in Jackson would mean the school’s second-ever state basketball championship.
“The love I have for these players and the game they play is deeper than it has ever been,” Hazzle said. “I work this team as hard as I worked my first team more than 30 years ago. I am not here for myself. I have accomplished everything you could dream to accomplish. I am here for these players.
“I want them to look back and have no regrets.”
Hazzle retired from teaching and coaching in May of last season. In the fall, Hazzle was asked to return to coach this season’s squad. In a move which is becoming more and more popular in education circles, Hazzle has been hired back as a part-time employee by the school district. This allows him to draw retirement, work part-time and coach.
“I felt honored they asked me to come back,” Hazzle said. “I asked my wife and she told me if it was something I wanted to do, I needed to do it. She reminded me that this is something that I do well. She also reminded me how much I love the game and how much I love my players.
“Really, there was no doubt that this was what I needed to do. Even when my high school coaching days are done, I want to be involved in the community. I want to help young people learn how to play the game the right way. I feel a calling to give back to this community. So many people here have given me so much.”
While Hazzle adds a decision about his coaching next season “will be made on down the road,” the veteran coach admits the focus is on the here and now and a chance to add a second gold ball to the other one won in 2008.
“The new format (two teams in north state advancing to Jackson, instead of three) has not been kind to us,” Hazzle said. “The last two years, we were on the doorstep and couldn’t get in. In each of those years, we lost the (north state) semifinal game that meant a trip to Jackson. That has been the motivational factor for this season. We have worked really hard to get over that hump.
“Playing in Jackson is an accomplishment all by itself. We know how hard it is to get there and have a better appreciation of going back.”
Senior guard Elliot Johnson says playing under Hazzle has been an “amazing experience.” One of the team’s premier scorers, Johnson said the ability to improve on the defensive end has been the key to returning to the coliseum.
“We are a much better defensive team and that has been the difference,” Johnson said. “(Assistant) coach (Cornelius) Gilleylen has come in and worked us real hard on defense. He has coached us up on the little things that can be the difference between winning and losing.
“This team is a little tighter and players better in crunch situations. That is a credit to our coaches for believing in us and putting us in a position to win.”
Hazzle said the team took its work ethic to a higher level this season. The sharp pain of back-to-back disappointments proved the motivational factor when it was time to lift an extra weight or run an extra lap.
“This is the goal for every ballteam,” Hazzle said. “Once we lost last year, we started working hard for this season. These guys have put in an incredible amount of work. The goal of every team is to win the state championship. Fortunately, we are one of four teams who still have that opportunity.
“It is a great group of guys with a great attitude. To be one win away and now to get there, it shows you are you headed in the right direction. We look forward to competing Saturday morning.”
Junior center Brandon Hodges credits with Hazzle with being the biggest influence on his basketball career. Hodges understands the sacrifice that has been made to get to this point. He also understands the challenge that lies ahead.
“Every day in practice we get better,” Hodges said. “The thing with Coach Hazzle is that he makes it fun but he also makes it serious at the same time. The togetherness of this team is what sets it apart. We believe in one another and we feel like together we can respond to any challenge.”
That mindset has helped make the Bulldogs program flourish. An Aberdeen High School graduate, Hazzle tried to play basketball at Itawamba Community College. After being cut by the basketball coaches, Hazzle played baseball at ICC instead.
“There were no hard feelings,” Hazzle said. “The baseball coaches took me in and made me one of them. I felt blessed to have that opportunity. Once I finished at ICC, Mississippi State and Ole Miss were not taking black athletes, so my choices were limited.
“My playing career continued at Mississippi Valley. From there, it was a chance to play minor league baseball. I was playing in Portland, Oregon, when my mother told me she needed me to come home. That is all I needed to hear. I was back as soon as possible.”
Once returning home, the opportunity to teach and coach at Aberdeen High School came forth in 1977. Hazzle began with the junior high team before moving up to the varsity level in 1988, where he led his first squad to a first-ever district title.
Since then, Hazzle has carried the Bulldogs to the Big House on five occasions. A flirtation with the state crown took place in 2007.
“We had a controversial call in 2007, that team should have won the state championship,” Hazzle said. “The next year, the players from that team reminded the players on next year’s team that nothing was going to be given to you and that you needed to go to Jackson and take it.
“That is the mindset for this team, as well. We don’t plan on anything to be given to us. Instead, we plan to go down there and take it.”
Win or lose, the dream run by this season’s squad from Aberdeen will be remembered for years to come. Hazzle adheres to a “no regrets” policy in matters both on and off the court.
“If I lay down to sleep tonight and dreamed about the past 35 years, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Hazzle said. “To be in my hometown. To be in a basketball gym which bears my name. To be around such a wonderful group of young people each and every day. I have been blessed in more ways than is truly fair.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.