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MC Athletics Hall of Fame Inducts Eight Former Student-Athletes, Coaches Into Class of 2024

Hayley Blackwell McKinion and Don Lofton are two of eight Choctaw greats set to be inducted into the MC Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday, April 20.
Hayley Blackwell McKinion and Don Lofton are two of eight Choctaw greats set to be inducted into the MC Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday, April 20.

Entering her senior year at Mississippi College, Hayley Blackwell McKinion ’01 was at the top of her game. But she had a difficult decision to make.

As a sophomore, the standout pitcher on the softball team had helped lead the Choctaws to the American Southwest Conference postseason tournament while earning ASC Player of the Year accolades. Although the team had failed to secure a postseason berth the following season, there was plenty of talent on the squad to make another run.

The demands of nursing school had taken their toll on her schedule, however, and the superlative student-athlete was forced to walk away from the sport she loved to complete her studies and answer her professional calling.

“Those last two years of school were tough,” McKinion recalled. “Nursing school had gotten so busy. But over the winter break, I realized I didn’t want to miss my senior year (on the diamond).”

She brought her dilemma to Susan Musselwhite, the team’s head coach and now the associate athletic director at Mississippi College.

“Before the season started that spring, I asked if I could come back to the team,” McKinion said. “She helped me make up missed practices and really worked with me and my nursing school schedule to allow me to come back for my senior year.”

It was a good thing, too. A little more than two decades later, McKinion is being inducted into the Mississippi College Athletics Hall of Fame, an accomplishment she may not have realized had she not played her senior season.

“I would have regretted not finishing out the four years,” she said. “When I asked to return, Coach Musselwhite could have easily said, ‘No, you’re not going to be at all of the practices, it’s not fair to everyone else.’ It meant everything to me that she gave me the opportunity to come back.

“I’ll always be super grateful to her for that.”

As head coach of the Mississippi College basketball team in the middle aughts, Don Lofton ’78, ’83 had an incredibly successful run from 2003-06. Lofton’s teams average 23 wins a year during those four seasons, including two American Southwest Conference Championships.

The 2005-06 season proved MC’s best. Lofton guided the Choctaws to a school-record 29-2 record, including the team’s second consecutive appearance in the “Sweet 16” Round of the NCAA Tournament. His team was the highest-ranked squad in the NCAA South Region rankings throughout the entire season.

Soon after the academic year ended, Lofton did a remarkable thing. He approached MC’s athletic director, legendary head basketball coach Mike Jones, and convinced him to take over the team.

“After that record-breaking season, my assistant coach, Kenny Bizot, who is now MC’s athletic director, left to become a high school head coach,” Lofton said. “Once I talked Mike Jones out of retirement, I became his assistant coach.

“I was an assistant coach for 20-plus years and was very comfortable in that position. We had an outstanding relationship and we had a lot of success working together. I felt we could do something really special if he came back and took over.”

The unselfish gambit paid off. The following season, the Choctaw men’s hoopsters continued their winning tradition, notching a sterling 27-3 mark.

“I enjoyed being the head coach,” Lofton said, “but I probably enjoyed being Mike Jones’ assistant more.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Lofton voluntarily took a backseat to Jones. Years later, he inherited the program again from Jones after the MC A.D. had experienced some health challenges. When those issues resolved, current MC President Blake Thompson asked Lofton if he would consider moving back to the assistant coach role under Jones.

“I told Dr. Thompson immediately that I didn’t need to consider it – I’d love to do it,” Lofton said. “As a coach, I always tried to set an example both on and off the floor for the players to follow. I think Coach Jones and I ran a first-class program together and we produced some high-character kids.”

McKinion and Lofton were among eight highly regarded former student-athletes honored during the MC Athletics Hall of Fame Banquet April 20 in Anderson Hall in the B.C. Rogers Student Center.

Thompon, university administrators, advisory board members, and current and former student-athletes paid tribute to the Class of 2024. Each member received a commemorative plaque, and Kenny Bizot, MC athletic director and 2008 MC Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, presented awards to the top senior athletes on each of MC’s 18 varsity teams.

Starting with the initial four honorees – Harry Craft, who helped guide the Cincinnati Reds to the 1940 World Series championship; James Edwards, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox throughout most of the 1920s; Sheriff Lee, left fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Braves in the 1930s; and Stanley L. Robinson, who helmed the MC football team to a tie for the Dixie Conference championship in 1940 – more than 250 men and women have been enshrined in the MC Athletics’ Hall of Fame.

A Byram native, McKinion grew up emulating her two older brothers, who enjoyed playing baseball (her middle brother, the late Blake Blackwell, played the sport at MC).

“I thought, if they can play baseball, I want to learn, too,” she said.

She began playing fast-pitch softball at age 10. She admits her first year was awful, but she kept at it and improved quickly, competing in challenging summer leagues as a teenager. That experience came in handy during high school, when she discovered Terry High only offered slow-pitch softball.

“We didn’t start playing fast-pitch until my junior or senior year,” she said, “so I played with travel teams instead. What drove me to continue playing was that, as a pitcher, the more I pitched, the better I got. It was fun for me.

“It was always a challenge to get out there against other teams and try to win. I was very competitive – I wanted to win.”

She did plenty of that at Mississippi College. She had decided to attend nursing school at MC. After arriving at the Christian University, she went to an open softball tryout and made the team.

It wasn’t long before she found her comfort zone in the center of the softball diamond.

“We had a great team,” she said. “There were several girls that I grew up playing softball with who were on the team. We met a lot of new people along the way.

“It was basically a family – it was like I had 10 other sisters. My brother ended up marrying one of the girls on the team. We had fun, and that’s what matters.”

Playing for her “family,” McKinion compiled impressive career statistics that still rank among the Top 10 all-time in Mississippi College softball. Among them: appearances, games started, innings pitched, complete games, wins, shutouts, strikeouts, strikeouts per game, and earned run average.

She obtained her degree in nursing at MC in 2001 and has carved a successful career in health care ever since. She has worked in intenive care, post-anesthesia care, and pain-based surgery an in a cardiovascular catheterization lab. She has worked at St. Dominic Hospital, River Region in Viclksburg, Riley Hospital in Meridian, and GI Associates. She now lives in Brandon with her husband, Johnny McKinion, and is employed as an administrator, running a surgery center in Flowood.

She said the lessons she learned on the softball diamond still resonate in her professional career.

“You have to be driven to go to softball practice and to do the things you need to do to get better, which is something you have to do in life as well,” she said. “Just being committed to do something shows you have discipline. To play softball, and in everyday life, you have to do the same things.”

Planning to be on hand to see her induction are her husband; her parents, Don and Deborah Blackwell; her two daughters, Allie Loftin and Hannah Loftin; and her surviving brother, Justin Blackwell. While unable to attend in person, stepdaughters Callie Ann Dayhoff and Joni McKinion will have her in mind all day.

McKinion is most looking forward to being reunited with her former teammates – her MC “family” – and Musselwhite, the coach that made her collegiate career possible.

“It will be nice to see the faces I haven’t see in 20 years,” she said.

Before retiring last June, Lofton had been a part of the MC men’s basketball program for 39 years, including 15 seasons as head coach. Ironically, he never played a single minute of the sport in high school of college.

The Brookhaven High School product loved basketball, but his natural talents leaned more toward football and golf. Upon graduation, his father, Charles, an MC graduate who once served on the Board of Trustees, laid out his options: Don could go to any college he wanted, but he and his mother, also an MC grad, would send their son to Mississippi College.

“They were two of my biggest fans,” Lofton said. “I was smart enough to take that offer.”

At MC, Lofton played golf and football – “I was the largest left-footed kicker in the country,” he said – and through his athletic pursuits, got to know Doug Hines, the head basketball coach. After earning his degree in business administration, Lofton decided to give coaching a whirl. Hines hired him as a graduate assistant.

Lofton spent two years learning the ins and outs of coaching basketball while pursuing a master’s in physical edication at MC. An opportunity to serve as head basketball coach at West Jones High School beckoned, so he left MC for Soso, Mississippi. When a full-time assistant coaching spot opened up at MC four years later, Lofton returned to his alma mater.

It was a relationship that lasted almost four decades.

“I like the college atmosphere and being a coach on the college level,” he said. “As much as anything, I liked the challenge of trying to do well. I learned from two of the best: Doug Hines and Mike Jones.”

He served as assistant coach for both, involving himself in every facet of the sport and discovering one of his many strengths: recruiting.

“I enjoyed going out and looking for players,” he said. “I learned a long time ago that to be a really good coach, you need really good players. We tried to get kids who were the best fit for our team and the best match for Mississippi College.

“I like to think we had some success doing that, and that’s why we were succvessful.”

Good players – and good chemistry between coaches. It seemed the leadership duo of Jones and Lofton couldn’t be beat.

“Jones actually played basketball at Mississippi College and served as a graduate assistant, like I was,” Lofton said. “I just got to know him and ended up in a really great relationship with him. I enjoyed working with him. He was very successful, and I learned a lot from him about basketball and life in general.

“He became a really good friend and still is to this day.”

His only regret from his long tenure at MC? Not winning the big one.

“I wish we could have won a national championship,” Lofton said. “We knocked on the door – we won a lot of conference championships, went to the NCAA Tournament multiple times, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen three times. I hate that we didn’t win it. We were close, but we didn’t get that done.”

He finished his career as an assistant to Randy Bolden, the current men’s head basketball coach. He considers enshrinement in the Mississippi College Athletics Hall of Fame – next to Jones – the ideal culmination to his long career journey.

“I’ve spent over 15,000 days at Mississippi College as a student and as a coach,” he said. “The 20th of April will be the day that will mean the most to me of all those days. You always want to be recognized, and this is a great way to go out – joining the MC Athletics Hall of Fame.”

He and his wife, Madelyn, have remained in Clinton since Lofton began his coaching career at Mississippi College. They will welcome their children – older son, Davis, an MC graduate, and his wife, Jennifer; younger son, Jay, an MC graduate, and his wife, Rachel; and daughter, Elizabeth, an MC graduate – and Lofton’s sisters – Linda Ballard, Beth Case, Laurie Davidson – to the Hall of Fame ceremony.

“It’s a great honor and something that obviously I will always cherish,” Lofton said.