‘Beautiful’ lessons in a special place for me

Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges has hosted soccer championships for 20 years. Hinds Community College in Raymond has won 10 of them.
They are by far the best program in the state, which is why I made the drive last Saturday with Miguel Vazquez and Jose “Chepe” Guerrero, two soon-to-be seniors on our Vardaman High School soccer team this fall, to attend their annual camp at Tom Shepherd Field.

Joel McNeece

It’s a drive I’m quite familiar with. I spent much of my youth with my grandparents in Raymond, which you may have seen is the “other” county seat of Hinds County if you’ve been following the Mississippi Trivia each week here in The Journal. Their house sat high on a hill overlooking the college. My grandfather, G.L. McNeece, ran the school’s dairy operation until he retired. My grandmother, Thelma McNeece, worked in the “meat merchandising” facility.

They are visions burned into my memory – being squirted in the face by my grandfather as he pulled on a cow’s udder while hooking it up to the milker, and seeing my grandmother in her gloves, hairnet and long white coat stained slightly pink from her work.
My cousins and I, who would spend a lot of time in Raymond every summer, would play ball and everything else all over the Hinds campus.

I remember as a small child being taken to the barber college on campus to let the young students train on my thick head of hair. My parents moved back to Raymond after retiring a few years ago.
Saturday, my dad, Larry McNeece, rode his motorcycle out to the campus for a quick visit while we were on the field waiting for the camp to start.

Thinking back over all the drives to Raymond in my life, I don’t think I ever had one so exclusively filled with soccer talk as last Saturday’s. I answered lots of questions about what to expect at the camp from Miguel and Chepe. We debated and made our predictions for the World Cup, which starts Thursday. I predict Germany. Miguel favored Brazil and Chepe was undecided.
We analyzed our difficult high school soccer schedule for this fall and the challenges it presents with a much younger team than we’ve had the past two years. We talked about various formations we may employ, player strengths and where we need to get better both on the field and in the classroom.

We each told stories of how we fell in love with the “beautiful game.” Miguel and I started playing when we were very small. Chepe just started playing a few years ago.
The camp was everything we were hoping for – tough competition, great coaching and a lot of education.
Most of the players in attendance were from 5A and 6A schools in the Jackson area or South Mississippi. We met players from Clinton, Brandon, Pearl, Petal, Warren Central and more.

Miguel said many of the players kept asking him, “Where exactly is Vardaman?”
I explained that’s why we’re here – to challenge ourselves but also to let everyone know exactly where Calhoun County is and that we play good soccer there.
It was a pleasure for me to spend a lot of the day by the side of Coach Doug Williams. During his tenure at Hinds he has become one of the winningest coaches in the country. The most startling point, however, was when telling stories of his playing days I realized he was several years younger than me. The pace at which the years seem to escape me now is quite alarming.

As the camp concluded, I wasn’t so certain I didn’t gain more from it than my players. They were completely exhausted as they poured themselves back into my Jeep. The two hour ride home was much quieter than the trip down. They slept while I reflected on a beautiful day with the “beautiful game” in a place of great sentimentality for me.