Before this season, the last time Sale Creek won a high school boys' basketball regular-season district championship, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and "Terms of Endearment" was the year's Oscar-winning motion picture.
Success came often under the guidance of then-coach Don Burton, who spent 20 of 34 coaching years on the Panthers' bench and won 585 games.
Fast-foward 29 years.
Eleven days ago, Sale Creek traveled to South Pittsburg for a game in which the District 6-A regular-season title was in the balance. The Panthers won, 76-70.
"It was really intense," Sale Creek coach David Helton said of the atmosphere that night. "It was very competitive. Both teams knew the one seed for the district tournament was on the line. It was a very physical game. It wias very well played by both teams.
"We talked about what an opportunity it was to try and win for our community and our school. All the kids that played in years gone by, any kind of championship you can win is for them, too."
But things haven't gone so well for the Panthers since earning that No. 1 seeding. To begin with, a seven-point loss to Marion County at home last Saturday cost them a shot at winning the district tournament.
"I always figured it's not a district championship until you win the tournament," said Coach Burton, who still attends games. "We won several. I won the first one here and the last one here."
The Panthers (15-10) dropped another seven-point decision at home to Whitwell in Tuesday's consolation game.
However, they still have a chance to regroup and win the region tournament. But to do that, they first have to win tonight at 7 at District 5 champion Boyd-Buchanan.
Beginning with Monday's girls' semifinals, the remaining action in the Region 3-A tournament will be at Sale Creek. Boys' semifinals are Tuesday. The girls' final is Wednesday and the boys' final is Thursday. Region finalists move on to state sectionals.
Halfway through the district season, Sale Creek looked like anything but a team with a shot atfinishing on top. In a Jan. 19 loss to Arts & Sciences, 6-foot-4 Preston Revis, who was averaging around 18 points and 12 rebounds per game, broke his foot and was lost for the rest of the year. A loss three days later to Marion County left the Panthers 3-3 in the league.
At that point Helton challenged some others to help do the work Revis no longer could do, and the Panthers won their last six district regular-season games.
Cody Heard moved into the starting lineup after Revis's injury, and fellow sophomore Hayden Abbott handles the point-guard duty. Juniors Cody Daniel, a forward, and Chase Janow, a wing, are other starters.
The other is a 5-10 senior guard who's carrying on the Burton heritage. Grandson Logan Burton admitted to not playing well in Sale Creek's most recent game and wants to redeem himself against the Buccaneers.
"We've got to take care of the ball, first of all," he said. "The last few games we've had too many turnovers. We've got to play hard defensively. They're good offensively, so hopefully we can do that."
Coach Burton's wife, Nancy, is the daughter of the Panthers' first basketball coach, Ervin McEwen, for whom the school's gymnasium is named. Sale Creek had a total of three coaches its first 57 years. The court is named after Don Burton, whose three sons all played for him state tournaments.
Helton, a former Boyd-Buchanan coach, is in his fourth season at Sale Creek and saw his teams improve from six to 15 to 18 victories his first three seasons with the Panthers. He embraces having Coach Burton around.
"I feel like I have a good relationship with him," Helton said. "He's been very supportive. He's been a mentor to me in some ways. If I ask him for advice, he gives it. If I don't ask, he doesn't. I respect his coaching ability. There are not many like him.
"He's one of those icons. He took Sale Creek to the state tournament when there was no classifications. He has over 500 wins. When you say 'Mr. Burton,' people know who he is. Having Logan play and get a regular-season championship his senior year is probably a special thing for the Burton family."
To have a chance of at least matching last year's win total, the Panthers must get by elimination games tonight and Tuesday. They bounced back from a humble regular-season start. Perhaps they can, too, from a rugged postseason start.
"Last year we got to the region," Logan Burton said. "Our goal is to make it further this year."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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