By ROBERT WILSON
Melissa Word won her first state championship on March 9 when she guided her Canton High School Lady Tigers to a 67-45 victory over South Jones for the Class 5A girls basketball title at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.
Word just completed her 15th season as coach at Canton and reached the top of the high school girl’s basketball world with a championship. She set a school record with 29 victories and only four defeats and finished No. 6 in the Clarion-Ledger Super 10 poll.
But many of her players already knew she was a champion in other ways than a coach.
Mother. Nurse. Counselor. Friend. Listener. Disciplinarian. Taxi driver. Motivator.
“I feel like I’m more than a basketball coach to these girls,” said Word, who also teaches physical education at Canton. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of their lives and hopefully I’ve helped them along the way. Most of these girls come from single-parent homes. Some have it pretty rough so I want to be there for them. They know they can come to me with anything going on and I’m not going to judge them. I’m always here to help them in whatever way they need.”
Word tried to follow the example led by her parents, Catherine and Roger Cowan. Word grew up in Ripley and became a Christian and was baptized when she was seven years old at Bethlehem Baptist Church in nearby Faulkner.
“Dad played the piano there and Mom was on the mother board where the ladies of the church would do mission work for the elderly and help out people in the church,” Word said. “My three sisters (Anesha, Melany, and Monica) and I started in the choir at an early age. I can’t remember when we weren’t in the choir. I guess when we started walking; we started in the children’s choir and moved our way up.
“The pastor that baptized me (Franklin Howell) is still there. Our church was very close knit. We had a lot of relatives who were members there and also had a lot of neighbors who were members there. We had a great time growing up there and learned a lot of life lessons.”
Word played basketball at Northeast Mississippi Community College and Tougaloo College and earned a degree in health and education. She got the job at Canton High right out of college and has been there ever since.
“Coaches and teachers can influence a lot of lives and we have a big responsibility to be there for our students,” said Word, who has attended Holy Family Catholic Church in Jackson for the past 10 years since she married Jason Word. They have two children, Madison, 8, and Justin, 5.
“My basketball players and students have a lot of ups and downs. And they are all different and must be handled in a variety of ways. Some react differently to success, failure, and discipline. It is important to get to know these kids. They test your faith and sometimes you want to know why this is happening to this child. But God will never put more on you than you can take. He is always there for you and I make sure my students and players know that. There are many people who say they don’t have time for these students, but I make time. I want them to know that I am always there even when others aren’t. It is a critical time in their lives. They have so many temptations and ups and downs. They appreciate what I do for them. After they graduate, they will come and see me.”
Players like Ashley Beals, who was one of three seniors on this year’s team. Beals was the leading scorer and rebounder in the championship game and was very excited that day, but her relationship with Word is much more important than any trophy.
“Coach Word is a very hard working and driven coach who allows us to believe in ourselves even if no one does,” Beals said. “If we are down in a game, she doesn’t say much to us about getting ourselves back in the game, but the little things she does say make us want to play harder.”
“Coach Word is like a mother to me,” Canton junior Jamilah Sanders said. “She helped me not only in basketball, but in life too. Coach has told me things that I will carry for the rest of my life. She will never let you waste a gift God has given you. There was a time in my life that I found out some terrible news and I didn’t have a clue what to do. Coach held my hand all the way through it all. She knows what is right for me and has given me things I didn’t have or couldn’t get.”