By Steve Williams
Christian Academy of Knoxville’s boys golf team begins play in the TSSAA Division II Class A tournament today with hopes of winning the state championship for the fourth year in a row.
One major difference between this season and the past three years, however, is that CAK has a new boys’ coach in Donnie Cooper.
Hank Fennell had been the Warriors’ head coach for 15 years before retiring, and his teams had accounted for all six of the school’s boys’ state championships, starting with the first one in 2009 at the Old Fort Golf Course in Murfreesboro.
Not only did Fennell leave behind quite a record, he also started somewhat of a tradition when the TSSAA made WillowBrook Golf Course in Manchester the annual site for the state tourney in 2010.
After CAK claimed top honors the second time, Coach Fennell celebrated by jumping in a pond that is located off the 18th green at WillowBrook and repeated the act when his Warriors won again in 2015.
“I think we – or at least I – did that every year we won at WillowBrook,” recalled Fennell earlier this year. “It was definitely a tradition.”
Cooper was asked at this year’s district tournament if he would carry on the tradition if the Warriors win the state.
“If the boys want me to, I guess I will,” he answered.
First, CAK will have to get past Webb and the rest of the state field. The Warriors outshot the Spartans 295-318 in the district, but Webb finished on top in the region 300-304.
Cooper also is in his seventh season as girls’ coach. His Lady Warriors won state titles in 2015 and 2016.
Fennell made him the offer to jump in the pond “together” in 2016.
“I declined,” said Donnie.
But this season, who knows?
Fennell started out coaching basketball at CAK in 2004 and coached for five years.
“At a beginning-of-the-year coaches’ meeting before school started in 2005, they mentioned that they were looking for a golf coach for the season, and I stepped up to take the job,” said Fennell. “Then they said something like, ‘by the way, the season starts tomorrow!’”
Fennell played golf in high school, but basketball was his sport.
“I know a lot about golf, but I’m pretty average,” he said.
Fennell gave up coaching basketball after the 2008 season and put all of his coaching attention on golf.
“I coached golf for 15 years, which is hard to believe, but it was probably the best thing I have ever done in my life,” he pointed out. “We had a lot of success, and I think the boys had a lot of fun.”
Terry Johnson, office manager for Fennell, who is President of Fennell Property Management, Inc., and a realtor for Realty Executives Associates, is aware of what coaching at his alma mater meant to him.
“He’s invested in these young men that he has mentored and coached,” she said. “Hank is a Christian and the first thing he does is encourage them in their spiritual walk.
“They weren’t just athletes on his team. They were individuals that meant something to him.”
Two of his former players who are playing in college now are interns in his business.
“These are young men that will stay in Hank’s life and he’ll be a mentor and a role model for them for life,” added Johnson. “He wants these young men to succeed not just in sports, but in life.”
How did jumping in that pond get started?
“I don’t remember if it was a spur of the moment thing or not,” said Hank. “It was probably Tracy Webb’s idea.”
Tracy was the father of Kory Webb, a CAK graduate around 2009 who went on to play at UTC.
“Tracy was the middle school coach and very vital in my development as a coach as well,” said Fennell. “He helped get the program to where it is today.”
On the way out, Hank left CAK with a sense of humor.
“Yep, six (titles) overall! I had to match MJ’s total before moving on.”