By Steve Williams
Hopes are high when teams make it to the TSSAA state basketball tournament in pursuit of a championship, but the odds for striking gold are low.
Teams which made it to the Division I high school girls and boys tourneys at Murfreesboro the past two weeks had a one out of eight chance of finishing No. 1 in Class AAA, AA or A.
Chances were better – one out of four – for the teams that played for the Division II Class AA and A state crowns in Nashville the preceding week. The path to the state for Division II, which includes private schools that give financial aid, also is shorter and has less hurdles to cross due to having fewer teams than Division I.
The competition to hoist a gold basketball used to be stiffer. When the TSSAA started an enrollment-based classification system with the 1972-73 season, all schools in Tennessee – public and private – played either in Class Large or Class Small. While we have 10 state champions today counting boys and girls teams, back then there were only four.
Division I went to three classifications in 1975-76, which increased the number of state champions crowned to six per year. TSSAA began Division II basketball state tourneys in 1998 and split Division II into two classes in 2008.
If you think the early ‘70s were ancient times, the first TSSAA state basketball tournaments were played in 1926. For over 40 years, schools were not classified according to enrollment. Little schools competed against big schools.
Example: Knoxville High captured its first state title in 1939. Happy Valley and Hampton, two of those little schools from upper East Tennessee, were state champions in 1950 and 1960, respectively.
It should be noted the first integrated TSSAA boys’ state tourney was played in 1966.
In all these years, Knoxville has had nine state champions in boys basketball and four in girls basketball.
Think about that for a few moments before we recognize those precious few . . .
Fulton was the last local boys team to cut down a net, winning back-to-back Class AA titles in 2008 and 2009. The Falcons’ Dominic Minor was named MVP of the ‘08 state tourney and Jalen Steele earned that award in ‘09. Jody Wright is still Fulton’s head coach, having just wrapped up his 28th season.
Austin-East has three state boys crowns and one girls championship. I got to see Clifford Ross, who preached defense, guide the Roadrunners to their first one. A brick tribute display in front of the school still recognizes the 1977 Class AAA champs, who were led by tourney MVP Elston Turner. A-E (34-2) beat Memphis Hamilton 72-59 in the finals.
John Foster, who assisted Ross, directed A-E to Class AA titles at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym in 1985 and 1987. The ‘85 squad, led by tourney MVP Leroy Thompson, posted a 33-1 record. Bethel Hendrick earned the award in ‘87.
Twenty years later, Austin-East celebrated a girls state title. Coach John Anderson’s Lady Roadrunners, led by MVP LaKrystle Goss, were 37-3 in 2007.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of an all-Knoxville affair at the 1978 boys’ state tournament in Murfreesboro. It was Holston vs. Rule in the Class AA finals – two of our schools that are Gone But Not Forgotten. Coach Howard Rash’s Warriors came out on top that night, defeating the Golden Bears, coached by Johnny Darden, 71-51. Tourney MVP Chris Harris powered Holston (34-1).
Going much further back, Knoxville High claimed its second state crown in 1941 as Bill Wright was selected the tourney’s MVP. KHS also captured the state championship in 1951, the final year of the school’s existence. The Trojans’ John “Doc” Clark was a two-time MVP honoree in the 1938 and ‘39 state tourneys.
Shelley Collier has guided Webb School to three girls state titles. Her Lady Spartans finished on top in Division II in 2007, Division II-AA in 2009 and Division II-A in 2012. Webb standouts Glory Johnson, Faith Dupree and Molly Melton were MVPs of those states.
Silver anyone? Seventeen Knox County boys teams have been runners-up in state basketball. Finishing second may be tough to swallow at first, but it’s something to be proud of as time go by.
For a very long time, I used to stop and admire the 1962 second place award in Fulton’s trophy case. Bob Fry coached that team, which included the great Ron Widby, who went on to stardom at Tennessee.
Holston was runner-up in 1967, falling 46-45 to Alcoa at Stokely Athletic Center. The Warriors’ Jimmy England, who went on to become an All-American at UT, was MVP of that tourney.
Rob Jones, who also led the Vols, was MVP of the 1982 state, even though Austin-East was Class AAA runner-up. Sandwiched between its 1985 and 1987 titles, A-E was Class AA runner-up in 1986.
Starting in 1999, Charles Mitchell’s Roadrunners came home with the silver basketball three years in a row. That’s tough, but a lot of coaches out there would love to have such a run on their resume. Darden almost did, as Rule was Class AA runner-up two years in a row, in ‘78 and ‘79.
George Pitts, who went on to coach many championship teams at Science Hill and Brentwood Academy, led South-Young to second place in Class AA in 1980.
Bearden and highly successful coach Mark Blevins came within one victory of a Class AAA championship in 2011.
Knoxville has had five girls teams to finish runner-up, including Karns in the 1980 Class AAA state. Called the Beaverettes back then, Joe Dooley was head coach and his star player, Pat Hatmaker, who became a Lady Vol, was selected the tourney’s MVP.
Webb bowed to Franklin Road Academy 52-45 in this year’s Division II-A finale. The Lady Spartans also were runners-up in 2008 and 2011. A-E girls took second in 2005.
Knoxville teams combined for a 2-6 record at the state this year. But then, finding gold never has been easy.