Oak Forest Academy boys hoops senior Chris Backa signs with LSU-Alexandria

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CHASING DREAMS- Oak Forest Academy senior forward Chris Backa, a native of Finland, has signed with LSU-Alexandria. He is pictured next to his host family Tanya and Kyle Warren. Back row (from left) Jacket assistant coach Joe Fekete and head coach Curtis Matherne. Photo By Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

On Thursday, May 10, Oak Forest Academy (Amite, LA) boys basketball senior forward Chris Backa officially signed a letter of intent to play for LSU-Alexandria. Backa, who is a native of Finland, averaged 14.5 ppg. and 6.5 rpg in the 2017-18 season, and shot 44 percent from 3-pt. range for the Yellow Jackets.

“This season, I saw a kid who is determined to get better,” OFA head coach Curtis Matherne said of the 6-foot-9 wing. “Until Christmas, we tried to make him play with his back to the basket, which was a little out of character for him. I met with my assistant, Coach Joe Fekete, and we figured out that we needed him on the perimeter to make plays, and from that point on he improved dramatically.”

Backa was featured on an OFA team that made it to the semifinal round of the MAIS AAAA Div. 2 State Championship Tournament were they fell short to Madison-Ridgeland Academy 65-63. The Jackets finished their season with a 20-10 overall record.

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“First of all, I have to say that I loved playing here,” Backa said of Oak Forest Academy. “We had a wonderful start to the season, then things got a little bit rough, but we didn’t give up. To only lose by two to MRA in the overtime of the semifinals I’d say we had a really good season.”

 

Backa says he is aware of the national attention brought to the LSU-A program, under head coach Larry Cordaro, since their run to make it to the NAIA Finals. The opportunity to play for a high caliber program, he says, was a major factor in his decision to sign with the Generals.

Backa also said he had special insight into Generals’ program thanks to his coach’s relationship with Cordaro.

“Corardo and I worked at Southeastern Louisiana University as grad assistants,” Matherne said. “He’s an awesome guy who’s built a national powerhouse in Alexandria. What I was stressing to Chris is that LSU-A is a family type program similar to what we have here. I know that was an important factor to Chris.”

Matherne went on to call Backa a “perfect fit” for LSU-A, noting that they were looking for a bigger player that could hit 3-pointers and make plays off the bounce. Backa said he sees himself primarily as a shooting wing, but he feels he can also be a player that does multiple things with the ball in his hands.

“Playing in America has been an eye opener for me,” Backa said. “I’ve gotten to experience many different cultures and see how different people live. I’ve also met many people who are now like family to me.”

With Backa signing at LSU-A, he makes the fourth OFA prospect to sign on a college level under Matherne in the last three years. Currently, the Jackets have two former players in NCAA Div. I (Mushabar Ali at Southern and Ashton Spears at Jacksonville State), and one former player (Reggie Johnson at Lamar CC) in JUCO.

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St. Helena HC Brandon Brown accepts job at East St. John; Northeast DC Johnny Felder rumored to replace Brown

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MOVING ON- After leading the St. Helena Hawks to a LHSAA 2A State Championship appearance in 2017, Brandon Brown will move on to become the head coach and athletic director of East St. John.

By Jesse Brooks

On April 20, St. Helena College and Career Academy Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Brandon Brown gave a farewell address to faculty, staff and students in which he announced that he has accepted the same positions at East St. John High School in LaPlace.

“The goal is for him to bring greatness back to East St. John,” St. John the Baptist Parish Schools Superintendent Kevin George said to The Advocate on April 18. “East St. John has one state championship (in 1980), but we are so accustomed to winning and going to the playoffs. We want to get back to the winning tradition.”

Brown’s Hawks showed clear benchmarks of improvement in each of his five years at St. Helena. In compiling a 36-25 record during his tenure, Brown provided structure and stability to a program in need.

Brown’s first year on the job resulted in a 2-9 season. Their dramatic improvement immediately after led to a championship appearance last season, eventually falling to Welsh 38-26, was the program’s first appearance in a title game since 2004.

The hire is a homecoming for Brown who was a standout player for East St. John. His performance on the field earned him a scholarship to Alcorn State.

Brown replaces Aldon Foster after three seasons. Before arriving to East St. John, Foster was head coach at Amite High.

During the development of this story, an unnamed source indicated that Northeast High Defensive Coordinator Johnny Felder has emerged as the likely candidate to replace Brown as the new head coach and athletic director of St. Helena.

 

 

Hwy. 51 Revisited: Jackson, Mississippi (pt. 1)

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Home of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Photo By Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

There seems to be a reoccurring theme of crossroads on this journey. The crossroads are a change in direction, a change of scenery, or a complete change of philosophy. Not many cities in America understand that, or embody that, as well as Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson’s roots can be traced to a French-Canadian trader named Louis LeFleur that set up shop in a village along the banks of the Pearl River in an area known as LeFleur’s Bluff. Years later, as the Mississippi territory was being prepared for statehood leaders suggested a somewhat central location for the capitol. The location we know today was chosen in 1821 and named for General Andrew Jackson for his impressive victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The new capitol was open for easy trade routes, and the new hub city would offer road that could lead in directions to other major cities.

After the Confederacy lost the Civil War in the 1860s, Jackson faced many challenges during the reconstruction period. Ultimately the expansion of the railroad was good for business, as interstate trade and commerce took hold.

Much of this type of transition into the modern era is documented at Mississippi’s Old State Capitol, which now serves as an official state museum. Built in 1839, the building wasn’t used for the state legislature for most of the state’s history as it was abandoned in years following the Civil War, but today the state’s earliest history is preserved for visitors through multi-media exhibits on self-guided tours. The museum is open daily, and admission is free.

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The old Standard Life building in Downtown Jackson. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

Mississippi has been based on agriculture for all of its existence so naturally the Mississippi Agricultural & Forestry Museum in Jackson is dedicated to that early history. In an interactive visit, tourists can come face-to-face with some of the earliest farm equipment in American history. There are exhibits devoted to trains, livestock farming, and the history of the logging industry. For anyone interested in getting a view of life from a previous century, this museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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The Hotel King Edward is a throwback to Old Jackson. Photo by Jesse Brooks

Jackson is a blues city, historically and presently. The capitol city became a facilitator for the music, as the country shifted into the 1920s. The city had several labels at the time, and most of them could be found on Farish Street, an area of town for African-American commerce. Hosting everyone from Robert Johnson to Cab Calloway got their first mass audiences on Farish Street, and the area was important for businessmen and artists alike. Today, most of Farish is abandoned, and the public efforts to revitalize the section have not worked out. However, a few business owners still hang on out of pride because of the import role the street has played in history. A blues club, F. Jones Corner, on Farish aims to keep the music of Jackson blues alive. On any given night at the club locals like Jesse Robinson and Vasti Jackson can be heard.

The Civil Rights era of the 1960s brought a lot of unrest to the city of Jackson, and the city has a unique place in the fight for equality. Many of the organized efforts to defeat segregation took place in the sit-ins of the city. One of the darkest days of the struggle occurred in Jackson on June 12, 1963, with NAACP state field director was assassinated outside of his family home by KKK member Byron De La Beckwith. Evers was a WWII veteran that had played an essential role in the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and schools in Jackson. His home is open as a public historical site today at the address of 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive. Inside the home there is a clear image of the kind of life the Evers family lived and everything they had gone through. The most haunting sight of the visit is that Evers’ blood still stains the carport to this day. Tours are free to the public daily though times may vary.

Jackson is a city soaked in the heavyweight of the past, but it must make a choice on what direction it wants to take for the future. Fondren, Jackson’s newly self-declared “hip” neighborhood has some suggestions. The area is revitalized with a new, yet vintage, charm. It’s where Jackson’s art and music elite of a new generation met to keep the city fresh. At any of its local businesses, you can find pop-up restaurants, local beer, and indie rockers like the Stonewalls doing their take on Jackson music.

Jackson has faced some economically challenging times in recent years just as any other American city, but right now is no different than other times Jackson has faced as a crossroad. One can only hope that a city chooses a path that honors its tradition, while still being inviting enough to grow a new generation. That may be what is happening in Jackson, and it seems that we are seeing the very beginning of that growth. With a culture that blends the old with the new, great food, be it hometown favorites or new ideas, is being mixed into that blend.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: McComb, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

McComb, Mississippi is the kind of town that seems to get by on day-to-day business. It doesn’t beat its chest to declare that it is better than somewhere else or decorate itself as something flashy. However, the best way to describe McComb is welcoming. You can walk into a public place or a locally owned business, and people smile and greet you. They ask you how you’re feeling and talk directly to you like they’ve known you for years.

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Though McComb may sound like a typical sleepy Southern town, history suggests that it wasn’t always that way. Like so many towns that reside on Highway 51, it exists because of the expansion of the Great Northern Railroad, known today as the Illinois Central Railroad. The city was founded in 1872 after Henry Simpson McComb decided to move the railroad’s maintenance shops to the area. Railroad employment caused a city to form and blossom.

Over the turn of the century, McComb at times went through periods of unrest. The Illinois Central Shopman’s Strike of 1911 brought violence to the city over a period that lasted nearly a year, and the strikes were eventually disbanded due to a lack of success. McComb suffered extreme violence against African-Americans throughout the 1960s, including 11 bombings after the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the following summer and African-Americans in the South finally received protection at the polls.

However, in eras of great struggle often something beautiful is born. The railroad became a facilitator for the exchange of great ideas, and musicians and artists from McComb began to make their mark on the world.

A Mississippi blues trail on Highway 51 begins in McComb, and it starts in a big way with “The Originator” himself, Bo Diddley. Born in McComb in 1928 and named Ellas Bates, Diddley’s songwriting is considered a key element in the popular transition from blues to rock-&-roll. Diddley introduced a five-accent Afro-Cuban rhythm to blues and country music known today as the “Diddley Beat.” The beat is a cornerstone in modern rock, pop and hip-hop music. A blues trail marker in his honor is located at the city railroad station.

McComb is also the birthplace of New Orleans gut bucket bluesman Lil Freddie King. The guitarist, who still performs regularly in the Big Easy at age 77, is mentioned on an official state blues trail marker near the railroad station.

McComb’s railroad station also serves as its official railroad museum. Inside is a full explanation on the town’s founding and development, as well as documentation of railroad life. The museum is open on Monday through Saturday at 12-4 p.m., and admission is free.

For weary travelers looking for a feeling equal to coming to a grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon, The Dinner Bell is perhaps McComb’s biggest attraction. Since moving to its present location in 1959, the restaurant has held an esteemed reputation in producing all of the essentials in Southern cuisine. Remarkably, though the business has changed owners over the decades, everything seems virtually unchanged. Dining is set up family dinner style, and several dinner parties share a place at a revolving Lazy Susan table that features mainstays like fried chicken, green and lima beans, yams and banana pudding. The table’s choice of food already seems endless enough, but weekends offer even more options. The Dinner Bell is a lunch only institution that opens on 11 a.m. on Tuesday-Sunday and closes at 2 p.m. It’s best to arrive early and not procrastinate on the opportunity.

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HOME COOKIN’- The Dinner Bell in McComb, MS is more than a restaurant. It’s an institution. Photo by Jesse Brooks.  

 

McComb has other dining options available in downtown such as Topisaw General Store for lunch and The Caboose, a more upscale restaurant and steak house.

New businesses are coming to McComb’s downtown, and the streets can be pretty busy mid-day. Economists say that America is going through an “urban renaissance,” and McComb seems to be set on being a part of the movement as former city buildings like the Palace Theater are being renovated for the purpose of regular multi-use. For the first time, the Palace Theater was used as the venue of the McComb Blues Music and Arts Festival in 2016.

McComb doesn’t demand your attention but it appreciates it. It may not be loud, but it fights and it has fought forward through times of unrest and economic ups and downs. What McComb can teach the rest of small town America is how to hold on to your local identity. In McComb, there are some things that will never change, and that is what makes it strong.

RAPPER LOOKS BACK ON GREENSBURG ROOTS

By Jesse Brooks

When most hip-hop artists look back on their humble beginnings, the story usually begins in a city neighborhood from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or New Orleans. However, for Jarius Burton, who goes by the stage name J. Quick, the origin begins in Greensburg.

“My family lived on Under the Hill Road near the truck stop,” Burton said. “I was into music a lot. My mom was in a band and my auntie sang a lot. Music was always in me.”

IMG_5124Burton’s mother Stacy played flute in the St. Helena High School marching Band, and placed an emphasis on music in the household. Burton also cites the gospel music his family was involved with at church as an early introduction to music.
Today in modern hip-hop, many rappers try to infuse various influences from outside of the genre. That has inspired many artists like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino to search the sounds of their past, and often gospel and soul music comes up as the common links.

“I’ve got an old soul,” Burton said. “When I was around my mother and my aunties we’d have Marvin Gaye and Al Green playing. I was exposed to all kinds of music at a young age.”

While in grade school, Burton and family moved to Hammond. His mother’s partner at the time, Cedric Flowers, a father figure, introduced hip-hop to Burton for the first time.

“I feel like being from Greensburg, and now living in Hammond, has helped me in some ways,” Burton explained. “Sometimes rappers from the city never leave where they are from. Someone from New Orleans might always just sound like New Orleans. I listened to music from all over and that’s what I want to sound like.”

With the expansion of the digital age, social media has leveled the playing field for emerging musicians. Burton is a student of the industry, and has put these new tools into use to launch his career. Every studio producer or live show Burton books for projects has been found through use of social media. He has travelled as far as Atlanta to showcase his music and link up with his online business relationships.

Burton currently works at Blue Beacon Car Wash in Hammond, supporting himself as he tries to make professional rapping a reality. He currently allows social media users to acquire his music free while focusing on monetizing his music through live shows and merchandise sales.

“I see myself as [a] concept artist because I feel like I’m a storyteller,” Burton said. “I like the songs to focus around one concept of each album.”

Burton is currently working in the studio to record an album with the working title “It’s Never Too Late.” Previously, Burton released “The S.H.E. Project,” a work all about relationships and heartbreak.

Burton’s music is available for free playback at https://soundcloud.com/realquickmusic online.

OFA Boys’ season ends with exit from MAIS AAAA Div. I State Tournament

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SENIOR STAND- OFA senior point guard Janero Porter scored 10 points in a 50-46 MAIS AAAA Div. I State Tournament loss to Parklane Academy. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks 

The Oak Forest Academy boys basketball team’s season has come to an end after falling to Parklane Academy 50-46 on Saturday, February 24 in the MAIS AAAA Div. I State Tournament third place qualifying game.

The Yellow Jackets found themselves trailing for most of the first half, but hot shooting got them back into the game. Junior guard La’Vell Scott hit a 3-pointer before the first half ended to cut into the Parklane lead 28-24.

Scott, who led OFA with 16 points, and senior point guard Janero Porter (10 points total) opened up the second half offensively hitting back-to-back shots from beyond-the-arc while still trailing 33-30. While the Jacket defense had their hands full with Parklane, their shooting was still on point. Later in the third quarter, senior forward Chris Back a made consecutive 3-pt. shots to bring OFA within 39-36.

The perimeter shooting continued in the final quarter as Porter opened it with a 3-pointer, and freshman guard Jaden Collura sank one of his own to tie up the game 44-44 with 4:08 left in regulation. Parklane answered with an easy layup off of a defensive breakdown, but Scott scored a fast break layup of his own to tie the game back up at 46-46.

Though the Jackets looked poised to win the game with time and possession in their favor, Parklane forced two steals that eventually led to a 50-46 advantage for victory.

“We made things happen on a few possessions, and then the ball kind of started to stick and we didn’t move as well as we wanted to,” OFA Coach Curtis Matherne said. “I don’t want to make excuses for them, but they’ve played good caliber teams in back-to-backs and maybe tour legs finally got to us. But they played as hard as they possibly could.”

The State Tournament started on a positive note as the underdog Jackets defeated Jackson Prep 65-49 for Matherne’s 100th career coaching win. Four different players scored in double digits in victory: Scott (19 points), Collura (17 points), Backa (15 points) and Porter (13 points). In the second round, OFA was defeated by Madison-Ridgeland Academy in a heartbreaking 65-63 loss in overtime.

Despite losing out on the game that would have qualified OFA for a trip to the MAIS AAAA Overall Tournament, the program as a whole produced a 20-win season. Several players experienced individual growth as well. Scott learned how to fill the role of the team’s top scoring option. Collura made the most of his opportunities and proved himself as a bench sharp shooter. Backa solidified himself as an inside and outside threat. Porter also displayed himself as a high energy point guard in his final season coming back from a year plagued with injuries.

“I worked at Southeastern for four years on the D-I level and I saw unbelievable point guards and guys that went on to make money overseas,” Matherne said. “I can’t believe schools and colleges aren’t beating our door down about Janero Porter. His basketball IQ, handles and decision making are off the charts. He can shoot it too. I would advise colleges in this area to check him out.”

Porter and Scott were both selected to the 2018 MAIS AAAA Div. I All-Tournament Team in an announcement made after the championship game.

 

 

OFA shortstop Caleb Cleveland signs with Bossier Parish CC

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MOVING UP- Oak Forest Academy senior shortstop Caleb Cleveland signs his letter of intent to play for Bossier Parish Community College with his family and Coach Tony Salim present. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

Bossier Parish Community College now officially has a second Oak Forest Academy Yellow Jacket joining up with the program as senior shortstop Caleb Cleveland signed his letter of intent on Friday, February 23.

“I know the division Bossier is in is pretty competitive so I’m looking forward to it,” Cleveland said. “It’s near Shreveport which isn’t too far from home so I think that’s pretty good.”

Cleveland has attended OFA for four years and is a native of Amite.

“I played varsity ball all four years and we won district every year,” Cleveland said. “I never used to be a strong hitter when I was younger. I always liked the glove so I kind of showed that off. Hopefully I carry that over to college.”

Cleveland credits OFA Coach Tony Salim and his staff for improving his swing, and building a group of young batters every year capable of significant offensive outputs. He says personal improvement each year at OFA has been the key to earning honors like All-District and All-State in in sophomore and junior seasons.

“Caleb is an extremely hard work and can play anywhere on the field. Catcher, shortstop, you name it,” Salim said. “It was him very valuable to this program. I was just thinking…He’s played every position on the field for us at some point in these past four years and he’s really good at all of them.”

Salim also said that he sees Cleveland being able to carry his career past the two-year JUCO level through a combination of hard work and talent.

“The goal, of course is D-I,” Cleveland said. “I was to improve and improve the best I can.”

Cleveland also says as a team he thinks the current Jacket squad can reach State and win, and is looking forward to hard work, but also having fun with his teammates.

 

 

OFA baseball ends Sonic Classic in dramatic fashion

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EYE ON THE BALL- OFA Senior Mario Campo gets ready to take a swing. The Jackets scored over 40 runs in the Oak Forest Academy Sonic Classic on February 16-17. Photo by Matthew Roy.

By Jesse Brooks

Oak Forest Academy baseball opened up their season on February 16-17 by hosting the Sonic Classic, and the Yellow Jackets closed out the weekend with a dramatic win.

On Saturday, February 17, Centreville put together a rally to take a 12-11 lead in the top of seventh inning, erasing a previous 11-8 lead for OFA. In the bottom of the inning, Centreville walked two runners on base. Trevor Robinson hit a long ball that allowed Caleb Cleveland to come home and tie the game up at 12-12, leaving a runner on third.

Sensing a win, sophomore Carson Hoover came out swinging early in the count and hit a single that sent a runner home for the 13-12 win.

“We swung the bats well the whole weekend,” OFA Coach Tony Salim said. “We scored a lot of points. I think we scored close to 40 runs in four games.”

Against Centreville, the game was one of rallies. OFA faced an early 3-0 deficit in the top of the first, but it was as soon as the bottom of the inning they would take their first lead. Robinson got the Jackets on the board by hitting a long ball that would bring two runners home while he stayed on third. With the bases loaded, Robinson scored when the next batter was walked to take OFA’s first lead of the game with a score of 4-3. The Jackets increased their lead as much as 6-3 in the bottom of the first after freshman Cole Adams stole home.

The two teams were all even again going into the bottom of the fifth inning with an 8-8 score. Layne McLin went to base with runners on base and got a hit in the middle of the lineup to send Cleveland home for another scored run. McLine was next sent home by Robinson who again pulled off a big hit. Hoover’s hit would send Robinson home as OFA took an 11-8 lead mid-game.
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OFA senior pitcher Caleb Manduni. Photo by Matthew Roy.

“Offense was obviously one of our strong suits over the weekend,” Salim said.
“We have a couple of guys that are out right but but once our pitching staff is at full strength I think we’re going to be really good and we have some high expectations this year.”

OFA went 2-2 over the weekend, beating Silliman Institute on Friday, February 16 with a final score of 13-9 and dropping a game against Central Private and another to Silliman.

OFA will enter the St. Stanislaus Tournament on Saturday, February 24 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and will host Copiah Academy on March 2.

OFA baseball senior Layne McLin signs with Bossier Parish CC

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MOVING ON- Oak Forest Academy senior Layne McLin signs his letter of intent to play for Bossier Parish Community College on Saturday, February 17 with his family and Coach Tony Salim and staff present. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

After two strong seasons with Oak Forest Academy baseball, senior Layne Mclin, who plays the infield positions and at pitcher, will play for Bossier Parish Community next season after officially signing a letter of intent on Saturday, February 17.

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“I had one more solid strong offer, but the reason why I chose Bossier was so I could go with one of my best friends, short-stop Caleb Cleveland,” McLin said.

Cleveland is also a senior at OFA, and is expected to play a big role for the Yellow Jackets this season.

“It was just an offer that I could not pass up,” McLin said. “I’m looking forward to spending time with new baseball players and rooming with my friend. As far as the future, I just want to keep moving up in baseball and go until I can’t go anymore.”

OFA Head Coach Tony Salim praised his ability as a hitter, saying that the power McLin provides in the middle of the line up is “something you really can’t coach.”

“One night we scored eight runs and tonight we scored 13,” Salim said. “We scored a lot of runs this weekend and a large part of that was having him in the middle of that order.”

McLin has been an exceptional player throughout his career. Last season he was an All-District selection in MAIS AAAA Div. I, and he received All-District 9-2A honors and All-State Honorable Mention at his previous school, Doyle High in Livingston.

McLin will join a Bossier Parish squad that went 21-29 last season under Head Coach Bobby Gilliam. The program was home to 30 players that went on to play for professional organizations. Bossier Parish is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association.

“I fee like if I hadn’t played ball at Oak Forest I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in today,” McLin said. “Coach Tony prepares us well if we’re able to take the next step. Anything you need help with, you name it, and he’ll take the time to help you figure it out.”

Salim said that several of his layers are currently being recruited while three of them have already made verbal commitments to college programs. He also said he expects the OFA senior class to have six or seven players to sign letters by the end of the season.

List of local boys basketball playoff games

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MAIS AAAA Div. 1 State Tournament Round 1

2/20 – Oak Forest Academy vs. Jackson Prep at Presbyterian Christian (Hattiesburg, MS)

LHSAA 1A

2/23 – No. 18 Kentwood @ No. 15 South Cameron: time TBA

2A

2/23 – No. 21 Franklin @ No. 13 Amite: time TBA

2/23 – No. 19 MLK Charter @ No. 14 Independence: 6 p.m.

2/23 – No. 20 St. Helena @ No. 13 East Feliciana: time TBA

2/23 – No. 18 Delhi Charter @ No. 15 Doyle: 6 p.m.

5A

2/23 – No. 32 Ponchatoula @ No. 1 Natchitoches Central: time TBA

2/23 – No. 17 Covington @ No. 16 Denham Springs: time TBA

2/23 – No. 29 Sulphur @ No. 4 Walker: time TBA

Div. I

2/20-27 St. Paul’s on two round BYE

Div. III

2/27 – No. 10 The Church Academy @ No. 7 St. Thomas Aquinas: time TBA