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CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Reggie Tucker's first year as head coach of the Cleveland High School boys' basketball team has produced one highlight after another.
That was not the case Friday morning, when Tucker had to deliver a tough message to the Blue Raiders, whose record-setting season is on hold with their dreams of winning a state championship hanging on by a thread.
The Blue Raiders, 33-1 and ranked No. 1 in Class AAA all season, began to feel the pain of the TSSAA having suspended its basketball postseason indefinitely due to coronavirus concerns after Thursday night's girls quarterfinals were completed in Murfreesboro.
"I had to tell my guys today our season for right now is suspended and that there is a slim chance of us playing again," said Tucker, a former longtime assistant at his alma mater before taking over last summer.
"I get it and understand it, but at the same time it doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. I am hurt for our three seniors: Antonnio Whaley, JaCobi Wood and Mo Schramm. They all earned the right to be at MTSU and play for a state championship. For it to crumble like it did, I am hurting for these guys."
Cleveland was scheduled to play Whitehaven (27-3) next Wednesday in the first game of the AAA boys' state tournament.
After going through a grueling nine-week preseason training camp and challenging each other in practice daily, the Blue Raiders are holding out hope their hard work and memorable season is not over with just yet. Schramm, a standout on both ends of the court, wants a chance with his teammates to win the program's first gold ball trophy since 1997.
"There is a lot of heartbreak because I know that the NCAA isn't having their tournament and the NBA was suspended for 30 days," Schramm said. "We are holding on to any hope we can. We have put in so much work, and we were so ready for the state tournament. I am confident in my team. We are a family and scary when we play together."
The Blue Raiders beat a pair of reigning state champions to open the season with road wins over Bearden and Knoxville Webb. They swept a home-and-home series with Maryville, which was set to meet Hillsboro in the first round of state, with the winner facing the Cleveland-Whitehaven winner. Wins over Chattanooga powers Howard and Tyner also stand out in Cleveland's season, along with two victories each over Oak Ridge and Siegel and three against Bradley Central.
Earlier this week Wood, who has per-game averages of 28 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5 assists and 2.7 steals this season, became the school's first Mr. Basketball honoree since Vincent Yarbrough won the award in 1998 before going on to play for the Tennessee Volunteers. Wood was sidelined for Cleveland's only defeat as the Blue Raiders lost 62-60 to intracounty rival Bradley Central in the District 5-AAA title game. Less than a week later, Cleveland beat the Bears to win the Region 3-AAA championship.
Cleveland's .971 winning percentage is a program record, and this was the program's first time advancing to the state tournament in back-to-back seasons.
Whaley and junior James Hall helped lead the way to big wins over district foes, and juniors Grant Hurst and Kley McGowan also have been vital in a starting lineup with no player taller than the 6-foot-3 Schramm.
"As a whole we have put in so much effort to this season," Whaley said. "I told my family we were going to be one of the best teams in the state, and they didn't believe me at first. It feels so good to be the No. 1 team in the state. We don't want it to be over with, though. There is still unfinished business."
The Blue Raiders took that approach Friday by practicing, and they will keep preparing for the state tournament until it's canceled or they are told they can't.
"These three seniors have elevated our program to a new height," Tucker said. "You can't take anything away from what these guys have done. No matter what happens. They made history all year long and have taken everyone's best shot.
"They can take away us having a chance to play for a state championship, but they can't take away what they have done on and off the court. Hopefully they will be blessed to be husbands and fathers one day and come back to Raider Arena and say I had a lot to do with that 2020 team. I am proud of these guys no matter what, but at the same time I am heartbroken for all of them."