One year later: Ooltewah basketball recovers from hazing incident

New Ooltewah basketball coach Jay Williams, left, talks to players at the end of basketball practice at Ooltewah High School on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, in Ooltewah, Tenn. One year after former players on the team sexually assaulted a teammate during an overnight trip to Gatlinburg, the program is rebuilding.

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Last Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of a hazing incident in the boys' basketball program at Ooltewah High School that not only rocked the suburb northeast of Chattanooga but sent shock waves throughout all of East Tennessee and beyond.

A lot has changed in a year.

While Ooltewah's boys were competing in a tournament in Gatlinburg, the incident involving the use of a pool cue took place in one of the team's rental cabins on Dec. 22, 2015. One teenage boy was convicted of aggravated rape and two were convicted of aggravated assault. The victim, a 15-year-old freshman at the time, no longer is in the Hamilton County school system.

Two federal lawsuits have been filed against the school district and former Ooltewah High School employees, alleging that they failed to protect victims from assaults by older players. Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston filed charges against former Ooltewah head coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery, volunteer assistant Karl Williams and the school's former athletic director Jesse Nayadley, indicating they failed to report child sexual abuse.

The charges against Williams were dropped in May, Nayadley accepted pretrial diverson and the charges against Montgomery were dismissed just over a week ago.

Robin Copp has replaced Jim Jarvis as Ooltewah's principal. Brad Jackson is now the athletic director. Jay Williams is the new boys' basketball coach.

"Mrs. Copp from day one has been all about moving forward, looking forward, and I certainly aspire to do that," Williams said. "But I'm just here to be a small part of a positive change. It's not just about basketball. It's a school and a community that's been through quite a bit, been through some unfortunate things."

Williams has coached basketball before in the north Georgia area but has been in administration the last 13 years. However, he has lived and continues to live in Ooltewah. He played basketball at Ooltewah High. He applied for the job because he loves the community and wanted to help in the mending operation.

"Anywhere I've ever been we've asked the kids to do three things: That's behave, practice hard and play hard," Williams said of his previous time as a coach. "And behaving means on the court and off the court.

"We know - and these kids are smart enough to know - this program is under a microscope. The kids just want to get back to enjoying playing the game. As long as they behave, practice hard and play hard, the rest is up to us coaches."

Two of Williams' assistants, Kerry Murray and Donel Cochran, also played for the Owls. The other is Theanthony Haymon, who played collegiately and professionally overseas.

As much as the new coaching staff has been important to the program's healing process, the current players share in the responsibility, too. Williams said the team is fortunate to have six solid seniors, and they're also regulars in the playing rotation.

"Everything happens for a reason," senior Daizon Taylor said. "I know that's how I look at it. We had to live with it and now we have to make the best of it."

Taylor is regularly a starter, as are fellow seniors Omari Kendricks, Terek McReynolds and Torey Morgan. Classmates Cory Tucker and Corey Morgan have also started at times.

The varsity roster also includes juniors Dominic Braden and Cam Chambers, and sophomores Logan Henry, Jax Howard, Jermichael Walker and Julien Walker.

This year's first day of practice was Oct. 31. It marked the first formal meeting of an Ooltewah boys' basketball team since then county schools superintendent Rick Smith last Jan. 6 canceled the rest of the team's 2015-16 season.

Kendricks said after their year was cut short, some players would meet at times and play pickup games at the Tyner Recreation Center.

Taylor recalled the gathering again at that first practice.

"At first we felt like we were starting over," Taylor said. "We're starting a new chapter."

Said Kendricks: "Now everybody's happy to get back on the court."

Taylor and Kendricks related that the worst part of the situation for them was repeatedly seeing and hearing news reports about their team and their school, and all of it negative.

"This is not a bad school," Taylor said. "The teachers and coaches teach us how to be grown men, or young ladies. They teach you how to show respect."

School life became drastically different early in the second semester of the 2015-16 term.

"Everybody was asking us questions," Kendricks said, "but we didn't know the answers. We were like everybody else. There were just a bunch of unanswered questions."

This year's team is 4-5. But like the status of their program, the Owls' season is also on an upward swing. They went 2-0 in the recent Rhea County Classic and were the only boys' team to come away from the competition unbeaten.

"These seniors have done everything we could've possibly asked for them to do," Williams said. "Some coaching staffs may have come in here and decided to clean house and play the younger guys. We weren't going to do that. They have taken the younger guys under their wing. It's been a family atmosphere, and they've truly treated them that way.

"They're not just good players, they're good people. They are a positive part of our basketball family. They will always be a part of the Ooltewah basketball family. One day they'll come back and see good things and know they were a part of laying the groundwork for positive changes here."

Staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater contributed to this story.

Contact Kelley Smiddie at ksmiddie@timesfree or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter @KelleySmiddie.