Sacred Heart athletic director Joe Falla Jr. believes the school filled two head coaching vacancies with two ‘unique’ hires.
Former longtime Petal coach Larry Watkins will lead the Crusader baseball program, and Andrew Little, 25, will head up the boys basketball team in what will be his first head coaching opportunity.
“Excited to have Coach Watkins and Coach Little on staff,” said Falla. “I think it’s a great fit for both of them.”
Watkins coached baseball at Petal High School for 42 years, leading the Panthers to six state championships in 38 seasons as head coach. He retired from the post last April and spent the last year being away from the sport more than he’s ever been used to.
“I did a lot of work around the house. I had a lot of catching up to do that I let slide over the years, and I enjoyed it,” said Watkins. “I also spent a lot of time with my wife. We have seven grandkids, six in the Jackson area. Went to a lot of events they had and really enjoyed that time.”
Then spring rolled around, and he wasn’t on a field or in a dugout.
“When the games start, you miss the kids and you miss the competition of the games and preparing for the season,” said Watkins. “It’s not always easy, but after 42 years, I still love it and I’m doing it now because I love the game.”
Falla says he talked with Watkins about Sacred Heart’s vacant position for two weeks prior to Tuesday’s introductory press conference. With every conversation they had, Watkins grew more and more intrigued by the opportunity.
“I really was impressed with how they run things over here,” said Watkins. “I just felt like this was the right time to get back, because I knew if I stayed out much longer, I wouldn’t probably go back to it.
“It took me a little while after I talked to Joe. I thought hard and prayed about it, and I just feel like this is where I need to be. I think I can help these kids.”
Falla called Watkins ‘a baseball guy’.
“That’s all he does. Baseball and grandkids,” said Falla. “And when he has his grandkids, he brings them to baseball.
“I think our kids are blessed to have somebody of his caliber here.”
The Crusaders are coming off a season where they qualified for the Class 1A playoffs with no seniors.
“That’s good,” said Watkins. “Hopefully we can continue on and move forward from last year.”
Much like Sacred Heart baseball, the boys basketball team was young last year, too. However, the program is not far removed from making it to Jackson. Andrew Little played at Richton High School from 2008 to 2012 and helped the Rebels reach ‘The Big House’ in 2011. Now, he’s tasked with getting the Crusaders back there.
“I’m incredibly excited. Just to know this is gonna be my first head coaching gig and knowing it’s at a great place where you’re gonna have great kids, that’s exciting,” said Little. “I’m gonna have them a playbook pretty much in the next couple weeks, and, from what I’ve heard from Joe and other coaches, they’re gonna eat it up and study the thing through and through.”
Before landing the Sacred Heart job, Little worked alongside and learned from his high school coach, Hugh Thoms, at Richton.
“As soon as I got there and a teaching spot, I went to him [Thoms] the first day and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be here, let me help you, let me do whatever I can do’,” said Little. “So basically I’ve been in his hip pocket learning, watching, helping him facilitate practice, shooting them through drills, and teaching them new plays they were instituting.”
Falla described Little as determined, energetic, and ‘just what their kids need’.
“They were real young last year and had some growing pains, but I think with that energy he’ll bring, I think we’ll be ready to shock some people for sure,” said Falla.
More than anything, Little is aiming to cultivate competitiveness.
“There’s a couple schools that are probably gonna have more athletes than us, like a Richton or Lumberton,” said Little. “But I believe, with everything within me, they can compete with them. That’s gonna be our mindset with every game we come into—compete with the ones you’re not supposed to compete with and beat the ones you’re not supposed to beat. That’s what we’re gonna try to do.”