For Heritage Academy’s Zach Allison, it was time to be a head basketball coach. For Starkville Academy’s Brian Merkel, it was time for a different challenge after being a college head coach.
But their divergent paths brought them to the same place Wednesday, as each new coach was seeing what his team had at the Impact Sports boys basketball team camp at Mississippi University for Women’s Pohl Gym.
Impact Sports, under Billy Thomas, who is also the Columbus Christian Academy boys coach, girls coach and athletic director, brought a variety of teams to the MUW campus, including Neshoba Central, Kirk Academy, Calhoun Academy and Columbus Middle School.
“This is a great thing for the youth, and it’s a great thing for our community,” Thomas said. “It gives people a chance to come in and see our university that’s in town. People come in and spend money in restaurants and hotels.
“Sponsors step up and help us, and they don’t do it because they want to bring in business, they do it because they want to help the kids.”
The surroundings were familiar to Merkel, who was the coach at MUW when the Owls started their men’s basketball program in 2018. The former starting point guard at Millsaps College previously had spent five years as an assistant at Hendrix College in Arkansas.
“I had been the head coach at The W for three years, and I was kind of looking for a new challenge,” Merkel said between games. “When I was working here in Columbus I lived in Starkville and still do, and I’ve watched Starkville Academy play the past few years. The opportunity came up, and it was too good to pass up.”
The description “opportunity too good to pass up” also applied to Allison.
“Sean Harrison, our headmaster, gave me a phone call,” Allison said. “He’s a good guy, somebody I’d like to work for. I saw some talent at the junior high level and the varsity program with some kids coming back. That was a draw to me.”
Allison played at Birmingham-Southern College, where he crossed paths with current MUW coach Dean Burrows. Allison scored 11 points (including 9 of 9 from the line) in BSC’s 94-82 win over Burrows’ Wesley College team during his senior year.
He spent the intervening years as the head junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach at Jackson Prep, which won the MAIS 6A and overall championships last season.
“In my journey, I felt it was time to be a head coach, and I felt I was ready for that next step,” said Allison, an all-Southern Athletic Association guard at BSC. “Heritage has had a good basketball program in the last five years when I’ve been around.”
Both coaches say their early experiences at their new schools has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’m still getting my feet wet with everything, but the kids are great, the staff, faculty,administration, everybody’s been great,” Merkel said, adding he liked that Starkville Academy does athletics “the right way.”
Merkel began his job June 1, giving him little time to get to know the players in his program before the camp.
“We didn’t even really start practice until the second week of June,” he said. “We’re very fresh, and it’s still a learning experience for everybody right now.”
Being in that situation made the Impact Sports camp a logical place to go.
“This is a good setup for the young guys to get a lot of reps, a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We’re missing quite a few junior high players with different things going on this week, but it’s been good to get out and get to watch them play.
“The seventh-grade group is really talented. They’re going to be a lot of fun to watch grow and develop basketball-wise.”
While Starkville Academy did not bring its varsity team — Merkel said the Volunteers will be at a team camp later this month at Madison-Ridgeland Academy — Heritage brought everybody to The W.
“We brought our eighth-graders; we brought our ninth-graders,” Allison said. “We split them into two groups, and then we brought our 10th- through 12th-graders. In the month of June we try to play as much as we can, get kids reps on the floor, as many live reps as we can.”
To that end, Allison said the Patriots go to one or two camps each week. At this early stage, he likes what he sees.
“They play hard, and that’s what we like,” Allison said. “As long as we don’t have to coach effort and toughness, then you’ve got a chance. As long as they keep playing hard, we can work on the smart part, we can work on some strategy.
“We’ve got a good group. They enjoy being around each other, and I enjoy being around them.”
Merkel echoed those thoughts, adding that the Vols have a strong senior class which already has tasted some success.
“They’re looking forward to ending their career on a high note,” he said. “They’ve a close group, and it’s been a lot of fun just getting out on the floor with them.”