White Hall High School boys basketball coach Marc Stringer was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2016, after which he began a battle that leads on to this day. Stringer was declared cancer-free in May of this year; however, that declaration would not remain long.

In the fall of 2017, Stringer was once again diagnosed with a form of cancer and, once again, entered into a battle much more important than the game that he has coached for so many years.

While fighting the disease, Stringer continued to coach his squad at White Hall High School. Upon his second diagnosis, White Hall Athletic Director Tim Atkinson contacted the mother-in-law of Stringer, Misti Coker, with an idea in support of the coach.

″White Hall’s athletic director, Tim Atkinson, called with the idea to make shooting shirts for the basketball team and have as many of White Hall’s opponents as possible to wear them this year,” Coker explained. “He asked if I thought Stuttgart would be willing, and I told him that I was confident they would.”

From there Coker contacted the Stuttgart Booster Club, where Stringer served as an assistant coach before moving to White Hall, and got the ball rolling.

According to Coker, Atkinson has launched a platform this school year to educate his student-athletes about lessons in life — not just sports. This was a perfect opportunity to do the same in Stuttgart.

″I was very excited about the opportunity. Marc (Stringer), Lauren (Stringer, his wife) and I designed the shirts, and all of the money will go to the Stuttgart Booster Club. This is not about raising money for a cause, but is about passing along the idea that although we all compete with each other on the field or court we will stand beside each other when times of struggle arise,” she explains.

In addition to Stuttgart and White Hall, Sheridan, another Bulldog opponent, has committed to locking arms with the group when the two teams meet on Jan. 12, while Pine Bluff High School and Watson Chapel are next on Jan. 16 and Jan. 19, respectively.

The hope is to have as many competitors as possible to join together, not simply to show support for the Bulldog head coach, but to show unity in a country too often fractured by minor disagreements and differences.

For Stuttgart’s part in the effort, head basketball coach Lance Davis was eager to jump on the opportunity with his club.

″This is a great chance to help one of our own. When Mrs. Coker called I immediately knew that we needed to be a part,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to teach the kids about coming together when someone is in need.”

The Ricebird community is quite aware of the battle that is cancer.

Stuttgart High School’s current student body experienced a recent loss to cancer through one of their own when Price Hancock passed after a battle just a few years ago. For that reason, the number 57, Hancock’s number, has been kept in remembrance of the player and person that he was.

Coker hopes to see a continuation of Hancock’s memory through this effort.

″This group of Ricebirds experienced the effects of cancer first hand not too long ago, and I hope that maybe we can teach love, support and empathy with this small gesture,” she said.

For his team, Davis is hopeful that he too can push past simply teaching the game that he and Stringer love and move into deeper lessons about life.

″We talk with our guys all the time to be a part of the solution whether in classroom, court or outside school. This is a real-life deal, and this is another chance to teach those lessons,” he said

According to Davis, the response from his players has been exciting.

″All of these guys know coach Stringer and all of us have battled real life issues so when given the opportunity they were all in,” he said.

Like the 2008/2009 team, Davis has a squad of players who are more than capable of making noise in the postseason. With four three-year lettermen on the floor to be paired with two talented sophomores and a gritty junior, the Ricebirds are a team worth considering this year. Davis does not take the comparison lightly.

″That team in 2009 had some early season struggles, and they fought back and finished on top. Now coach Stringer is having a hard time, but he is battling, too. I love to compare the situations to encourage our guys to work through tough times just like coach Stringer. He has led his teams whether playing or coaching and coming out on the other side. This group will have struggles this season and how we respond will determine our outcome, ” Davis said.

When the clock hit zero on that magical season in 2009, it was the Ricebirds who hoisted a state title trophy for the second time in school history. In 2017-18, it will be the Ricebirds who, in conjunction with other student-athletes across the southeast, rally for a much greater cause than a trophy.