For Abby, Big House' dreams come true

By By Sid Salter / syndicated columnist
March 13, 2002
JACKSON Bruce High School Lady Trojan basketball player Anna Abigail Hillhouse, 16 all 5'3", 105 lbs. of her is not related to me by blood. We're much closer than that.
We own real estate together. Each summer, our families share a Neshoba County Fair cabin for 10 days. There is a wall in the cabin where a makeshift growth chart stands as testament to the annual inches in height achieved each year by kids named Salter, Bailey, Denley, Hillhouse and Adams eight of them. I have grown to love them all.
Abby and my daughter Kate were born nine months apart and have been friends since they could walk. They love the fair as I did as a child and revel in their time together there with friends and kin. Part of the fair's charm is that kids get out in the sawdust and the red clay and get dirty playing.
At 3, Abby wasn't satisfied to sit by and watch the boys play catch. She wanted in on the action, too. And play she did. Even as a tyke, Abby had the grace of an athlete and possessed the uncanny ability to throw a ball hard and fast and tight. By the time she was 7 or 8, "burnout" was her favorite game and she would shame boys twice her age who just couldn't handle the "mustard" she put on the ball.
Sore hand, hot glove
I made the mistake of having a catch with her a few times and paid the price with a sore hand and a hot glove. Abby was a natural athlete competitive and confident like her father, Lanny. But at the same time, there was a sweet, gentle spirit about her that she shared with her mother, Celia. She's a really great kid.
There is a photo I cherish made with Kate and Abby in my arms walking back from the grandstand fireworks shows at the end of the 1990 edition of the fair. The 4-year-olds were tired but happy after a day roaming the fairgrounds wearing shorts and T-shirts, garish Mardi Gras beads and a light coating of red mud on their little feet.
Watching the Big Unit'
In later years, I would take the girls to Atlanta to see the Braves play. Kate was enthralled with the pageantry of Turner Field, but Abby's eyes rarely left the field as we watched Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson hurl 100 mph fastballs at Chipper Jones. Abby ate it up.
By the time Abby reached the seventh grade, she could compete with the boys in baseball and football. Playing cornerback for Coach Donnie Logan's Bruce Junior High Trojans, Abby proved to the older boys what I learned in the sawdust between Snooky Williams' cabin and the Howard Cole cabin she looks like a pretty little girl, but plays ball like a mean old boy.
Since joining the Bruce basketball program under Coach Ralph Stallings, Abby has dreamed about a state championship. In a game dominated by athletes a head taller, Abby was by any measure too short for her dream. There were five taller starters for Bruce as Abby accepted her role as the "sixth man" and contributed to Stallings' superior program at BHS.
Friday, Bruce met East Marion for the 2A girls state championship at the Mississippi Coliseum the "Big House." Late in the game, with star teammate Laketia Stephens in foul trouble, Abby got in the game. She battled the tough East Marion athletes for each of the six minutes she was on the floor and committed a righteous foul with a thrown elbow.
She missed four of her five shots I confess I had advised her to shoot each time she got the ball and dadgum if she didn't then Abby scored a layup. Grandparents Gale and JoAnn Denley needed oxygen about that time as did I. Team was the key word in Bruce's championship. Seems it always is. It should be.
But in that moment, I remembered that little tow-headed girl playing ball in the sawdust years ago as she grew into her dream. Bruce won the 2A state title 55-48 and Abby left the "Big House" as the champion she's always been.