Hammond, LA (WLOX) - It's no secret the Coast has produced plenty of standout athletes, coaches and ambassadors of sports over the years. Our newest series from WLOX Sports - "Coast Connections" - looks to highlight those incredible people who made a significant impact on athletics in South Mississippi, and then went on to excel elsewhere.
In his 27 years as a head coach, there's not much Jay Ladner hasn't witnessed. He's dealt with his fair share of referees, he's seen heckling fan become an esteemed co-worker - SLU head baseball coach Matt Riser - and he's watched a coaching career take several twists and turns, including one lengthy stop on the Coast, along the way.
"Actually, I took the road much less taken into Division One," Ladner said with a smile. "Very less traveled road, I should say."
As his collegiate playing days at Southern Miss came to a close, the Hattiesburg native dreamed of one day coaching high school basketball. His father - legendary Picayune head coach J. Larry Ladner - had other plans.
"Unfortunately for my Dad, the company that I went to work for put me on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said Ladner, who spent his spare time assisting with St. Stanislaus basketball practices. "I didn't know what I was doing, but (St. Stanislaus) offered me the job. I can still remember telling my dad that I was going to leave this very lucrative pharmaceutical representative job to go coach at St. Stanislaus, and his words were "are you crazy?" That's a true story."
Judging by those early years in the Bay, his father's opinion may not have seemed far off the mark.
"We won six games my first year at St. Stanislaus," Ladner said. "We were 6-22 and we were 8-22 the second year. But a lot of people forgot the foundation building that happened (those seasons) in 1991-92 and 1992-93."
That foundation quickly took hold. Ladner turned the Rock-A-Chaws into a perennial power, leading them to nearly 500 wins and 10 state tournament appearances over the span of 20 years. But, Ladner is the first to admit, the program had as big of an impact on him as he had on the program.
"20 of the greatest years I've ever spent were at St. Stanislaus and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Ladner said. "(Their) emphasis on a Christian education and the holistic education, educating the mind, body and spirit, really helped form me in my philosophy in terms of coaching, as well."
With nearly two decades of dominance along the Coast, there was just one goal left to accomplish for Ladner's Rock-a-Chaws.
"We would get to Jackson and the state championships," Ladner reminisced. "We may lose to Lanier or to Jackson-Provine, but we had gotten to the point where we were going every year."
Finally, after years and years of building, Ladner's squad broke through. With an incredible record of 34-2, the Rock-a-Chaws knocked off Pass Christian to clinch the 2011 Class 4A State Championship. Ladner - finally a championship coach - was at peace, but the journey was not over.
"I was there for 20 years," Ladner said. "I really felt like I was going to retire there, but the Lord had a little different plan. My old high school coach called, I had an opportunity to go back to my own high school, Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg. (They) made me an offer I couldn't really refuse."
But after just one year with the Warriors, Jones County Junior College came calling. Then, two seasons and a national championship later, that "road less taken" to coaching NCAA Division One basketball finally reached its destination in Hammond, Louisiana.
"All those three places, I just loved those jobs, and I always felt like that was going to be my last job," Ladner said. "Here I am at Southeastern Louisiana, and again, I may retire here."
Now, well into his fourth season in Hammond, the tide is finally starting to turn for the Lions. So far, every SLU player that finished their eligibility under Ladner has graduated, and last year, the program posted their first-ever perfect APR score. Not to mention, the wins are starting to come, too. As March Madness approaches, the Lions find themselves firmly in the mix for a Southland Conference Championship, their first since 2005.
"My initial press conference here, we talked about becoming a national power in basketball," Ladner said. "I think a lot of people snickered and laughed, and maybe there's some people still laughing, but just maybe not as many. We're certainly a lot closer to that. We may not get there, you know, we may not get there. But if we're not trying to be the best, then what are we striving for?"
But no matter where Ladner's career takes him, those days back on the Coast are never far from memory.
"I'm very indebted," Ladner said. "I loved it there, I still love St. Stanislaus. I love the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even though I grew up in Hattiesburg and I consider Hattiesburg home, I consider the Coast home as well."
Ladner looks to continue expanding his program's impact here on South Mississippi. The Lions played an exhibition game at Gulfport High School last fall, and have plans to schedule future regular season games at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.