Even with all of the elements swirling around Howard School, its boys' basketball program is making its 25th state tournament appearance today — and its fourth in four years.
Brandon Walters and the rest of the team were determined that however Howard's season ends, it would be in Murfreesboro.
The 6-foot-8 senior center has led the Hustlin' Tigers (27-5) back to the Murphy Center, where they will take on East Nashville (27-7) at 6 p.m. EDT in a Class AA state quarterfinal.
Over the course of the season, Howard has dealt with shootings outside gymnasiums after games. One each occurred at Howard, Brainerd and Tyner, resulting in games between the three being moved to Saturday afternoons.
Last week, another shooting took place during school hours, resulting in the death of a minor.
"We try to keep everything outside," said Howard coach Walter McGary, who holds closed practices. "There are things that happen outside of Howard that we can't control. The only thing we can control is what goes on inside.
"These guys have a lot of pride about their team, their school and their community."
A season ago, the basketball team was in a similar position to what it will face today -- in Murfreesboro, led by the efforts of Walters. His second-ever state tournament game resulted in seven points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in 20 minutes -- decent stats, but nowhere near what he was capable of and what the team or fan base had come to expect. The result was a 62-52 loss to Jackson Liberty.
Walters dropped his weight from 285 to 260 pounds in the offseason, aided by a full season of playing football, and has been an even better player for the Hustlin' Tigers.
"Our big guy has matured," McGary said. "He wanted to get back. It was one of the goals to get back to state and we got there. I think he has something to prove -- he lives to show people different.
"This year, he's been more focused about the team and he's been in better shape. He's been a pleasure to coach this year."
Senior guard Antonio Smith said the team has developed more of a family concept this year. For them to advance, he knows what it will take, as the Eagles -- who were state runners-up in 2010 under their old school name, East Literature -- have no player taller than 6-foot-2 and prefer a fast-paced game.
"From the beginning of the year, we've been more of a family -- more of a team -- and it's been wonderful," he said. "We're going to need big Brandon and Xavier [Harris] to step it up, but everybody as a whole will have to come together and play as one."
McGary has been pleased with the way his seven-player senior class has provided leadership to the rest of the team throughout their recent streak of 11 wins in 12 games, which includes a current eight-game streak without a loss.
"This team, with the influx of sophomores, has a good mix of youth and maturity," he said. "It doesn't matter who we play, as long as we come to play and play defense, I think we can play with anybody.
"The only thing I've told the guys is that I'm just tired of going over there for one day."
Howard is 213-44 under McGary, with six state appearances -- four of which ended with first-round exits.
With two wins, Howard will advance where no Class AA Hamilton County team has advanced since 1982 -- to the state title game, when Kirkman finished runners-up. The city has won eight titles since then -- five in Class A, along with Brainerd's three titles.
In addition, Sweetwater won a title in 1994 and Cleveland won in 1997. The last area boys' team to advance to a title game was Bradley Central in 2003.
Regardless, Howard wants to be the next.
"Last year, we came out strong and played well, but Liberty was able to capitalize on some mistakes at the end to win," Walters, who has averaged 5.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the state tournament, said. "I felt like I did alright, but I could have been better; I felt I let my team down because I wasn't playing like they were used to me playing during the regular season.
"I think we're the team to win it; it would mean the most because I was doing it at Howard."