By Steve Williams

When I walked into Clifford Ross Gymnasium at Austin-East High School last Wednesday afternoon, boys basketball head coach Marcus Stanton was finishing up a practice session.

He didn’t see me enter the gym at first, as he was observing a drill on the far end of the court and getting his players ready to run sprints. When he did spot me a few moments later, he flashed a big smile and made me feel welcome.

As he walked over, I wanted to give him a hug – I was that happy for him and his team because of their sectional win – but I shook his hand instead.

I am so happy for you and your team I told Coach Stanton right off the bat. Whether that was a professional thing for a sports writer to say to a coach, I don’t really know. But I know what Coach Stanton and his team has been through for over a year, and I was happy they had come full circle.

The Roadrunners, who were banned from post-season play last year, are going back to the state tournament this year. And to get there, they had to do more than win their sectional game at Greeneville last week.

For those who don’t know the background of this story, let’s rewind the tape to January 2018 …

Austin-East and Chattanooga Brainerd had been sanctioned by the TSSAA after their game at Brainerd was stopped when reportedly a “brawl” broke out on the court. There also were reports that fans came on the floor and made the situation worse.

Both teams originally were banned from tourney play for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

Appeals by the two schools in February were denied, but for the first time ever, the TSSAA Board of Control allowed the two schools an opportunity to make positive changes in their programs for a chance to have their penalties removed at a follow-up hearing.

Last August, administrators and coaches from A-E and Brainerd presented the Board many sportsmanship initiatives and positive changes the schools had implemented since the incident.

The Board of Control voted to approve the second appeals made by the two schools and remove both the probation and restrictive probation placed on their basketball programs. This action meant the two schools would be allowed to participate in postseason tournament play in 2018-19.

Following the Board’s unprecedented action, TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress applauded both schools and said: “The administration of both schools has given every TSSAA member school a blueprint to follow when it comes to turning a negative situation into a positive.

“They did more than change their basketball programs. They are making a difference in their communities. We cannot say enough wonderful things about their efforts.”

Both Austin-East and Brainerd basketball teams held sportsmanship clinics in their communities last summer and traveled to each other’s city to assist each other.

A-E also started doing community service at the Love Kitchen, which is just down the road from its campus, and has continued that relationship. Many others at the school have joined the boys’ basketball team in that endeavor, including students, teachers, office personnel and coaches in other sports.

“This time last year our season was over,” said Coach Stanton last week. “We had no games to look forward to and no chance of going to the state … All of these kids, except for three of them, was on that team. Now you got a group of kids who know what it feels like to have their season taken away, to lose a season over something that’s just silly and makes no sense.”

On a positive note, Stanton said that incident did group people together at A-E.

“It just galvanized the whole school and everybody was trying to get something good accomplished out of it,” he said.

“The kids were so positive through the whole thing. ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll be back.’ And it was good to hear that, like now hearing those same kids say, ‘Hey Coach, We finally made it.’ And they are actually happy. And it’s a good thing to see.”

Was what happened last season a motivational factor this season for the Roadrunners?

“I think it’s something that’s in the back of their mind,” said Stanton. “They know what happened. But this has always been a group of kids that wanted to achieve a lot. I won’t just say that the reason that they are fighting so hard is because of what happened last year. I think this is a group of kids that wants something. They want to be special and they are playing to be special.”

Brainerd also won its sectional game and will play in this week’s state tournament. In fact, A-E and Brainerd would play each other in Friday’s semifinals, if both win their quarterfinal games Wednesday.

Both teams have made it full circle and more. Good for them!