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Long-successful Ooltewah High School volleyball coach Elaine Peigen went into the Chattanooga State Athletic Hall of Fame on Thursday as a basketball player.
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Jill Crawford Higdon

Elaine Peigen went into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame this year primarily for her achievements in volleyball, a sport she played at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and in which she has a 744-300 record and 11 state-tournament appearances as Ooltewah High School's coach.

But Thursday night she went into the Chattanooga State Athletic Hall of Fame as a basketball player. She played that sport for the Tigers in 1978-80, after leaving the six-on-six divided-court version at Hixson High School.

"The great Scott Cook was my high school basketball coach," Peigen recalled this week. "I was a defensive guard, but knowing that I really loved the game and wanted to play in college, I started working on my shooting skills the summer before my sophomore year. My junior and senior years I was able to swap out playing forward and guard."

Not surprisingly, getting to run up and down the whole court for the fledgling Chattanooga State program was a thrill. Her coach there was Carol Monroe.

Fastpitch softball was Peigen's other favorite sport in her teens and early 20s, but Chattanooga State was a decade from starting softball when she was there. Another inductee Thursday was part of the diamond Lady Tigers' ascent to national prominence, however, and when Jill Crawford Higdon went on to UTC she didn't change sports.

Higdon actually went first back to LSU, from where she had transferred after a medical redshirt, after the 1999 and 2000 seasons with the Lady Tigers. She came to UTC for her senior season when coach Frank Reed moved there from Chattanooga State.

Also inducted Thursday in the "celebration" in the school's faculty/staff dining room were baseball player Andy Simunic, who went on to the Tennessee Volunteers and then a seven-year professional career, and the 1991-92 men's tennis team that competed in the NJCAA Division III national tournament in Corpus Christi, Texas. Betty Jones was the coach of that group, who included Brian Thomas, Jamie Moody, John Seay, Joe Blansit. Brian Proffitt and Chuck Pool.

Rick Hunter of Hunter Oil Company and faculty member and former women's basketball coach and athletic director Kim Weems Smith each received a Distinguished Service Award.

"I'm honored and very humbled but a little bit embarrassed," said Smith, a former UTC basketball player who's in her 28th year at the community college. "I don't have to be recognized for doing my job, but I love this school."

Simunic, who came to Chattanooga State from Collierville, Tenn., was picked by the Houston Astros in the 17th round of the 2008 baseball draft and made it to Class AAA with the Astros and then in 2014 with the Gwinnett Braves. He played virtually every infield and outfield position and even pitched 2 1/3 innings in 527 minor league games, wrecking an elbow ligament in his second mound outing. He had a .276 career batting average and stole 64 bases in 81 attempts.

"Andy was the personification of what we're always looking for in our program," Chattanooga State baseball coach Greg Dennis said. "He was hard-working and had a great personality and has been a great ambassador for the college and our program."

Dennis said Simunic "self-made" his development through "his persistence and determination," but Simunic gave the Tigers' coach considerable credit.

"Chattanooga State and Coach Dennis put me in a position to go to a school like Tennessee to play and ultimately get drafted," said Simunic, now a Tennessee state trooper living in Nashville. "Coach Dennis was the only one who gave me a chance to play in college."

Higdon got more than another chance at Division I softball from her time at Chattanooga State. That's where she met Jeremy Higdon, who became her husband. They have worked together for years, now through Connect Training Center, in providing coaching for area softball and baseball players.

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com

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