published Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Grace Academy puts tests to work in state

Chattanooga Class A state tournament success

2001 -- Chattanooga Christian won state title

2002 -- Tennessee Temple won state title

2003 -- Tennessee Temple won state title

2004 -- Grace Academy finished runner-up

2006 -- Grace Academy finished runner-up

2007 -- Tennessee Temple won state title over CSAS

2009 -- Grace Academy lost in a semifinal to eventual champ Manassass

2009 -- Tennessee Temple was state runner-up

2010 -- Grace Academy finished runner-up, losing in double overtime

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. ā€” Experience taught Jon Mattheiss that a regular-season loss could sometimes be beneficial. Grace Academy's veteran basketball coach routinely schedules games against teams in larger classifications, believing tougher competition will better prepare the Golden Eagles for a deep postseason run.

That strategy again has paid off as the Golden Eagles rebounded from a regular-season stretch in which they lost eight of 11 games, mostly to teams in larger classes, to reach the Class A state tournament. Grace (19-10) has won 11 consecutive games going into its state quarterfinal against third-ranked Friendship Christian (25-3) tonight at 7:45 EDT at Middle Tennessee State University.

"A lot of Chattanooga Class A teams want to play the Double-A and Triple-A opponents because it gets us ready for the postseason," said Mattheiss, whose team played seven opponents from larger classes and had double-digit losses to McCallie, which was ranked No. 1 in Division II for most of the season, and AAA state qualifier Ooltewah. "It only makes you better, even if you have to take a whipping in the regular season. We know we'll never face a better team or more athletic team than we've already seen in McCallie and Ooltewah.

"We're not intimidated by athletic teams. We won't be wowed."

Mattheiss has led Grace to the state tournament five of the last nine years, but the program is seeking its first championship, having finished runner-up three times (2010, 2006, 2004). The title-game loss two years ago was in double overtime and senior forward Corey Nelson, who will be making his third appearance in a state tournament, said he still remembers the pain of such a narrow defeat inside the Murphy Center.

"That loss two years ago still sticks with us," Nelson said. "We had chances to win it but didn't. Now we have one more shot. A lot of it is who can adjust to the big arena and the open background behind the baskets quicker. A lot of shooters wind up pushing it or throwing up air balls early in games, until they adjust."

The Chattanooga area had just one small-school state champion and three other teams to reach title games in the first 27 years of classification in boys' basketball. But local teams have played in the Class A championship game eight of the last 11 years, resulting in four local state champions, including in 2007 when Tennessee Temple beat Arts & Sciences for the title.

The Golden Eagles beat Friendship Christian two years ago on the road in the sectional round. But this year's Commanders team appears to be one of the favorites as the small schools tip off today.

"They're very athletic, so we'll try to get them in a half-court game and keep things at our pace," Mattheiss said. "The mental part of the game is so big at this level. If you're scared or timid, you'll get beat quick. That's why I like knowing we've been battle tested against good teams already.

"We don't have to be the best team over there -- just the best team on the court each time we play."

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFPā€™s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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