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RUSH Athletes of Year for 2021 Named

State Games Names RUSH Athletes of Year for 2021

State Games of Mississippi 2021 Rush Athletes of the Year, from left,
are Male AOY Hunter Luis Melendez,
Female AOY Tere Turner and Youth Athlete of the Year Cooper Conner. 


MERIDIAN, MS — The three winners of the 2021 Rush Athletes of the Year for the State Games of Mississippi show the courage and strength of athletes from across the state. Track and Field participant Hunter Luis Melendez (Laurel), Mountain Biker Tere Turner (Madison) and Soccer player Cooper Conner (Wiggins) all had to overcome adversity and challenges to win the honors.

The State Games of Mississippi was able to come back strong for its 30th year in 2021, with most of its sports and more than 5,000 competitors. “Coming off of 2020 and the restrictions of the pandemic, we were gratified to have such a successful entry into our third decade,” said Carolyn Smith, executive director. “It has been amazing to see the levels of competition and the spirit of our sponsors and volunteers.”

Based on the national program, the State Games of Mississippi established the annual “Athlete of the Year” award to recognize Mississippi’s amateur athletes. Coaches, officials, athletes, volunteers and spectators nominated one male and one female athlete from each of the 2021 sports for the award. The nominated athletes personify the ideals of the State Games movement, such as participation, sportsmanship, special attributes, achievements, efforts and positive attitudes. Three final winners are chosen: Male, Female and Youth Athletes of the Year.

Hunter Luis Melendez • 2021 Male Athlete of the Year

If adversity were a sport, then State Games of Mississippi 2021 Male Athlete of the Year Hunter Luis Melendez would receive a gold medal.

The 22-year-old Track and Field competitor from Laurel, MS, has felt the pull of family needs above his athletic dreams, even turning down offers to run track in college to help his grandmother as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, he broke his foot in 2017 and missed the last month of his senior year in sports.

Despite the challenges and dealing with family crises, Hunter found a good coach and the strength to persevere, winning Gold in the 2021 State Games of Mississippi and hitting his personal best in the 100m and 200m Track and Field events. He also won gold in 2020, 2019 and 2018 in the Games.

Currently a student at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Hunter has won other medals, including second place in the 100m at the State Games of America and a second in the 200m. From 2015 to 2018, he was a Mississippi District Champion in the 100m and the 200m.


Tere Turner • 2021 Female Athlete of the Year

When Mountain Biker Tere Turner crashed during the 2021 State Games of Mississippi and broke her arm, she got right back up and completed the race. It is this grit and accomplishment that made her the perfect recipient of the 2021 Female Athlete of the Year honor.

Tere, who hails from Madison, MS, has won many races despite falls, including Gold in the 2018 and 2019 State Games. The 47-year-old has also won a Silver in the Games, plus was the Champion in her category in the Gulf Coast Regional Mountain Bike series in 2018 and 2019.

Sports Commissioner Grayson Edwards said, “Tere does not know the meaning of the word ‘quit.’ Tere took a tumble off her bike and injured her wrist early in the race, but got up and kept walking the course, determined to finish. Race officials alerted the on-site ambulance crew, but Tere wanted to continue. Her determination to finish despite a difficult challenge earned her this nomination.”


Cooper Conner • 2021 Youth Athlete of the Year

The 2021 State Games of Mississippi Youth Athlete of the Year faced a devastating time before his first soccer game because his dad suffered a massive heart attack. Twelve-year-old Cooper Conner of Wiggins, MS, came straight from the hospital and stayed with his soccer coach and team while his dad was in surgery. Despite his worry about his father, Cooper said “I know my Dad would want me to play and I can’t let my coach or teammates down.”

Cooper played in the soccer competition Saturday; his dad died that afternoon. After hearing and digesting the awful news, Cooper said he wanted to stay and play the Sunday games in honor of his father.

“His courage was remarkable,” said his coach. “He even made a goal during the Sunday game from a penalty kick.”

Cooper’s resilience was also tested in March of 2020 when he fractured his ankle during a game. He was in a wheelchair, then crutches before he could walk again. He came back faster and stronger, playing with his team in August 2020.

Other nominees for the 2021 Rush Athlete of the Year included:

Lamar Smith, Bowling -Meridian

Louisa Leclerc, Bowling -Brandon

Joel Gordy, Trail Run -Meridian

Summer Riley, Trail Run -Meridian

Les Goff, Master Swimming -Hattiesburg

Stephanie Cayula, Master Swimming -Waveland

Jackson Lee, All Star Baseball –Calhoun City

Stephen Hudson, Archery -Purvis

Christy Sibley, Archery -Meridian

Abigail Mowery, Softball -Meridian

Dan Murphy, Cornhole -Chunky

Tori Duncan, Cornhole -Collinsville

Makenzie Taylor, Youth Soccer -Pearl

Cooper Conner, Youth Soccer -Wiggins

Cole Tadlock, 5K Road Race -Decatur

Kahrna Stimley-Washington, 5K Walk -Meridian

William Wicht, Axe Throwing -Hattiesburg

Rebecca Gibson, Axe Throwing -Purvis

Avery Anders, 7v7 HS Soccer -Meridian

Sarah Pierce Swift, 7v7 HS Soccer -Meridian

Lalo Carrillo, Cycling -Meridian

Vicki Alexander, Cycling -Meridian

Alex Rowe, Youth Swimming -Vicksburg

Celeste Adams, Youth Swimming -Pelahatchie

Heath Shoemake, Stickball -Philadelphia

Grayson Edwards, Mountain Bike -Flowood

Tere Turner, Mountain Bike -Madison

Thaison Berry, Canoe/Kayak/SUP -Gulfport

Mavis McElroy, Canoe/Kayak/SUP -Toomsuba

Wesley Pippins, Junior Golf -Madison

Harper Hinckley, Junior Golf -McComb

Caroline Fruge, Indoor Volleyball -Meridian

Herb Bennett, Table Tennis -Hattiesburg

Dot Fortenberry, Table Tennis -Meridian

Elliot Tulip, 15 and up Basketball -Meridian

Ryan Robertson, Junior Golf –Crestview, FL

Annabelle Simmons, Junior Golf -Lauderdale

Tanner Beaugez, HS Team Baseball –Ocean Springs

Lucas Sinopoli, Jr High Team Baseball –Ocean Springs

Ashton Fairley, HS Fast Pitch Softball -Lucedale

George Sisson, Barrel Racing -Quitman

Molly Jean Goodwin, Barrel Racing -Lauderdale

Phil Ray, Pistol Competition -Chunky

Carol Rigby, Pistol Competition -Gallman

Joseph Forrester, Youth Archery -Starkville

Jaylyn Bridgman, Youth Archery -Tylertown

Neil Witherow, Pickleball -Jackson

Leigh Ann Ross, Pickleball -Jackson

Judd Smith, Beach Volleyball -Bailey

Parker Bracken, Beach Volleyball -Ridgeland

Matilyn Blackwell, Beach Volleyball -Bailey

Jeremy Hopkins, 3 Gun Competition -Chunky

Nate Phillips, Fencing -Collierville

Ashley Katze, Fencing -Bellebille

Gracie Dinh, 22 Rifle Competition -Starkville

Stephen McDaniel, 22 Rifle Competition -Meridian

Joe Burns, RX Fitness Challenge -Meridian

Emily Arnold, RX Fitness Challenge -Meridian

Hunter Melendez, Track & Field -Laurel

Hailey Truman, Track & Field -Meridian

Eric Johnson II, Sporting Clays -Meridian

Suzanne Todd, Sporting Clays -Meridian

Drew Larsen, Disc Golf -Biloxi

Tommie Dickson, Disc Golf -Gulfport