The two high school programs with the strongest boys' basketball tradition in Chattanooga were considered long shots — for different reasons — to reach this year's state tournament. But here they are, both Brainerd and Howard, having overcome long odds to battle back to a status their fans have expected for decades.
Howard, which hadn't come close to winning 20 games any season during a six-year absence from the state, surprised everyone but first-year coach James Talley by reclaiming the swagger it had lacked.
Class AA state basketball tournament quarterfinals
At MTSU (Times EDT)
› Howard (25-8) vs. East Nashville (26-6), 11 a.m.
› Brainerd (22-10) vs. Pearl-Cohn (20-10), 3:45
Meanwhile Brainerd, which had been a state-tournament fixture until TSSAA sanctions for an on-court fight banned the program from last year's event, is back for the fourth time in five seasons. The Panthers originally were given a two-year postseason ban following the brawl with Austin-East, but after a dual sportsmanship clinic with the Knoxville school, along with other off-the-court work, the TSSAA lifted this year's ban from the two teams and both earned their way back to the state tournament.
When the Class AA portion of the state tournament tips off Wednesday at Middle Tennessee State University, those two longtime rivals will once again represent the Scenic City — each facing a traditional Nashville power. Howard (25-8) opens against East Nashville (26-6) at 11 a.m. EDT, and Brainerd (22-10) will face Pearl-Cohn (20-10) at 3:45 p.m.
"This has been my goal since my freshman year," Howard senior point guard Marquez Williams said. "After watching Brainerd get there so much, I've wanted to experience it. When we beat Brainerd at their place this year, that let us know that we could be really good.
"The biggest difference from the past few years is that we trust each other more this year instead of playing as individuals. We feed off each other and know that anybody who's on the floor can get hot for us. There really isn't just one guy we depend on."
Experience on the biggest stage should not be a disadvantage for either Brainerd or Howard since only one team — Knoxville Fulton, which finished as runner-up — returns from last year's AA state tournament.
Howard opened the season with 10 straight wins, but a late-January slump with losses to Brainerd, East Ridge and Red Bank had the Hustlin' Tigers looking more like the middle-of-the-pack team they were picked to be. They rebounded just as the postseason began, winning four of their last five games, and now are making the program's 25th appearance in the state tournament, still looking for its first championship.
Shortly after Talley was hired to take over his alma mater's prized program, he turned a team meeting into story time as a way to introduce what he felt would bring the players together.
"The kids probably thought I was crazy at first, but I read them the children's book 'The Three Little Pigs' and then a few pages from 'The Wizard of Oz,'" Talley said. "The point of 'The Three Little Pigs' was I wanted them to understand the importance of a strong foundation and how that would help us get through the tough times.
"What I explained from 'The Wizard of Oz' was that every one of those characters who went on that trip already had everything they needed within themselves to be successful. It might sound crazy, but you could tell the kids connected with what I was telling them from those stories. I knew we had the talent, but the kids just needed to gain some confidence in themselves and do the right things. We've had a great season so far, but we're not done yet."
Even after having its postseason ban lifted, Brainerd did not open the season playing like a contender. The Panthers lost their first five games before finding their footing, but they have won nine of their last 10 games, including two against teams ranked in the state's top five, to reach the tournament for the 17th time.
"I'm so proud of the way our kids stuck together and worked for this," said Panthers coach Levar Brown, who guided the program to a runner-up finish in 2016. "They could have transferred to another school back when we didn't know if we'd get the chance to go to the postseason. But they all stayed here and worked to earn this shot."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis