When it comes to the state’s most popular and biggest revenue-producing high school sports — football and boys’ basketball — it’s time we accept the fact that Chattanooga has become the pesky little brother to the rest of the state.
Before we even reached the semifinals of another state basketball tournament this week, the two local teams in Class AA (Howard) and AAA (Ooltewah) were back home, both with double-digit losses.
While we have had nine boys’ basketball teams win state championships or finish as runners-up in Class A in the last 10 years, no boys’ team from Hamilton County has played for a title in AA or AAA in 15 years. Brainerd is the last local boys’ program to win a championship (1992) and reach a title game (1997) in any classification higher than Class A, making this by far the longest title drought our county has had since the TSSAA began its three-classification system in 1976.
Howard has reached the AA state tournament five times in the last six years, but it has been 30 years since a school in Hamilton County (Kirkman) played in the AA title game.
The picture isn’t much brighter in football locally, since Red Bank is the last team to reach a football title game in any class higher than 2A in more than a decade. Even baseball has seen a 25-year dry spell since Central won a title in the largest public-school class.
We might as well embrace our identity and support the area small-school teams, because those are the only serious contenders for the foreseeable future. And the reason for that is simple: There are too many options, too many high schools in Hamilton County. Compared with the state’s other major metro areas — Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville — our best local athletes are now so scattered that the talent pool is too shallow to support being competitive in the large-school classes.
Davidson County (Nashville) has nearly double the population of Hamilton County, while Shelby (Memphis) triples our population and Knoxville has roughly 100,000 more residents, but Hamilton County has exactly the same number of Class A programs as those three counties combined. Nine of the 26 public and private secondary schools in Hamilton County compete in the TSSAA’s smallest classification, including seven with enrollments of around 300 students or fewer. There have been six new Class A schools to open their doors in the last decade.
In this economy, not many families can afford the tuition at Baylor, McCallie and GPS, but we are now the state’s ground zero for less expensive, small private schools and Class A public schools.
And while the local area is still dominant in the larger classes in wrestling and softball, 23 Memphis schools have played in the Class AA and AAA basketball finals since our last representative, and the Knoxville/Maryville area dominates football with 23 state championships since Red Bank’s 2000 championship.
So while we can celebrate individual accomplishments and local league championships and continue claiming state titles in the small classifications, with the collection of athletes it takes to compete against the state’s top large schools, our lack of success in those classes likely will continue.
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 TFP’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 ...