Chattanooga's winningest boys' basketball program over the past decade has just one piece of hardware remaining to be claimed.
But Arts & Sciences can take a step toward earning that elusive TSSAA championship today as the Class A state tournament tips off. The Patriots, who have averaged 23 wins per season the last 10 years, open against Lake County at 12:45 p.m. EDT at Middle Tennessee State University.
The winner will play the winner of today's first quarterfinal, Hampton (30-4) against Summertown (21-11) in a semifinal game Friday at 11 a.m. EDT.
Winners of two straight district and region championships, the Patriots are led by seven seniors, including two all-state-caliber guards. Sharif Cobb (6-foot-2) and Alex Stallion (5-10) mirror one another in their statistics and leadership roles. Both average around 16 points, five assists and four rebounds per game and are interchangeable as point guard and 2-guard.
"We've had guards who were pretty good, but it was always one at a time," CSAS coach Mark Dragoo said. "We've never had two this good play at the same time. What has made them so much better since they began is that they've pushed each other, they've sharpened each other at practice.
"Typically Alex comes to me about 30 minutes before school so he can open the gym and go shoot, and Sharif will stay after practice a lot of times to take extra shots. They've worked to get here, so that makes this very gratifying."
CSAS (28-4) has won 14 straight games, all by double figures, with the last loss coming to Howard, which is in the Class AA state tournament. This is the Patriots' fourth state-tournament appearance, and they are the only returning team from last year's Class A bracket.
The senior class - which also includes Malik Dodds, another 6-2 wing who averages 14 points per game - has won more games than any previous class and never lost a regular-season district game. They could truly become the greatest class in program history if they can string together three wins this week. CSAS had state-runner-up finishes in 1991 and 2007.
"They have all had the same goal and that's to win it all," Dragoo said. "I really believe just getting to the state tournament is the hardest thing to do. Once you get here, a lot of it is about luck. We didn't get a very lucky draw. There are some tough teams in our bracket, but we're here and now it's up to us."
Lake County (23-10) also comes into the tournament on a hot streak, having won its last nine games. One of those was against 2010 state runner-up Memphis Westwood. The Falcons have two wins over state-ranked Humboldt and were the only team to beat Middleton, doing so on the road. Four of their losses were to out-of-state foes from larger classifications.
Dawn Barger, the wife of former Central football coach David Barger, is in her first year as the Falcons' coach and has a team very similar to CSAS. Both teams are guard-oriented and like the up-tempo style, but the most notable difference is the experience factor. Lake County has just one senior and is looking for its first state tournament win in the program's third appearance.
The Falcons are led by 5-foot-10 junior Rafael Tyler, who averages 17 points and was an all-state receiver in football. Backcourt mate Ricky Boyd (6-2) also was a football star and averages 14 points. But the most talked-about Falcons player is Derrick Swift, a 6-2 junior who transferred from Lake County to Fulton County (Ky.) before the season, then transferred back and was ruled eligible the day of the state sectional game.
"My philosophy is if the kids believe in you and what you're doing, it's going to work out good," said Barger, who played at Soddy-Daisy.