On the drive home from his first game as head basketball coach at Notre Dame High School, Brad Harris wondered if he had made the right career choice.
The Fighting Irish had just lost their season opener to Red Bank by a whopping 60 points. The defeat could have sapped a lot of enthusiasm from the 24-year-old coach, who had given up a professional playing career in Europe to work with teenagers.
"My first thought was where do we go from here?" Harris said. "I called on multiple friends and coaches for advice, because how do you keep guys' heads up after you begin the season like that? Finally, I just told the guys, 'Look, this is my first year coaching, so I'm going to make mistakes. And you're going to make mistakes. But if we stick together and grind it out and compete on every possession, we can have things going our way by the time the postseason rolls around.
"Give the kids credit: They shrugged that one off and just found a way to battle and get better."
Sure enough, earlier this week Notre Dame clinched the District 7-AA regular-season title. No team in our area has overcome more obstacles to win its league this year, an arduous journey that began when Tommy Fox resigned as head coach just before practice got under way in September.
Two weeks later, during the search process, athletic director Howie Sompayrac bypassed more experienced candidates and gave the job to Harris, believing his energy and intensity would provide the boost the program needed.
Harris was a three-time All-American at Tennessee Temple and Lee universities and was the player of the year in Lee's NAIA league as a senior. He said he got challenged to play one-on-one by players when he first arrived, but rarely gets asked now after proving his own skills haven't diminished.
Just before Harris took over, star sophomore D.J. Bowles, who had averaged 26 points per game last year, transferred to Cleveland High. Notre Dame tipped off its season without starting point guard Stedmon Ford and has had to battle through without other starters at various points of the season. The Irish will finish out the season with only seven healthy players after three were recently lost with knee injuries.
A plague of locusts is about the only calamity Harris and the Irish haven't faced this year.
"I'll say this about Brad, he just has a knack for reaching kids and teaching them," Sompayrac said. "And I've never seen a coach who takes more time to work one-on-one with his players and really put all of his effort into each kid. He came in and bonded right away with them and really motivated them to work through some pretty tough circumstances.
"He's so young looking, a lot of times people think he's one of the players, but he has the kids' respect and he's done a great job of building them up and making the game fun for them."
Notre Dame's nondistrict schedule was brutal with games against some of the top-rated teams in our area -- McCallie, Baylor, Ooltewah, Bradley Central, Red Bank and Arts & Sciences. All of those teams have either wrapped up their own district titles or are still in contention. But Harris said he believes each of those opponents prepared his team for the district schedule as well as the postseason. Notre Dame's only district loss came on a buzzer-beater in overtime against Grundy County.
"We took our beatings early against the best teams in the area," Harris said. "But after we played those teams, we knew we had seen it all as far as styles of play. Once we got to our district, we were mentally and physically prepared, and what these kids have accomplished is amazing."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.