The world was only a few months into a new decade, and I was less than a year out of high school when my life changed for the better, all by chance.
It was early 1990 and with our country on the edge of Operation Desert Shield, I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue taking college classes or if it was my patriotic duty to join the military. My mother was having none of it. Knowing how much I loved sports and that I was majoring in communications to pursue a career in the media, she took it upon herself to call Roy Exum, who was sports editor of the Chattanooga News-Free Press at the time, and plead for him to give me a talking-to. Instead, Roy, ever on the lookout for strays he could take in, gave me something even better — a job.
So at 18, and having absolutely no business working in a daily newspaper's sports department, I was hired on a part-time basis. On my first day I arrived 30 minutes early and wore a tie. I'm pretty sure it's the last time I've ever worn a tie to work.
Later that spring I covered my first game, and by that fall I had been promoted to a full-time employee and was hooked on the adrenaline rush that I was actually getting paid to write about sports.
The job became a doorway to cover everything from Southeastern Conference football and the NFL to NASCAR, the Atlanta Braves and the Masters, but I always gravitated toward writing about high school sports because I recognized early on that's where the real drama and best storylines were, and it's where I've focused much of my career. Surrounded by games that are dominated by numbers, I always preferred to write more about people — what makes them tick and pushes them to excel in sports — than simply game results.
This past week marked my 30-year anniversary of covering sports for Chattanooga's newspaper. Since that first year — when we watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, the debut of "The Simpsons" on TV and Milli Vanilli being stripped of a Grammy for admitting they didn't actually sing on their "Girl You Know It's True" album — I've been able to follow through on the words of a college adviser who told me, "Find something you enjoy doing, someone who'll pay you to do it and you'll never work a day in your life."
Whether standing on a dusty ballfield or sitting in a cramped, Cracker Jack box of a gym, covering the players and coaches at our area schools also opened the door to some wonderful, lasting relationships I would not have been blessed to develop otherwise. It's those folks I've met, and the memories, that I always will prize most about the job.
Having covered state championships in every TSSAA-sanctioned sport, including 46 football title games, every state basketball tournament since 1990 and every Spring Fling since its inception, here are a few of the most lasting images from those past 30 years.
Lion of a program
One of the first events I covered was the 1990 football jamboree at Brained High School, and I still remember thinking Red Bank looked like a small college team when its players stepped on the field. The Lions rolled through the regular season, climbing as high as No. 12 in the nation in the USA Today poll.
There was future college talent practically at every position. Quarterback Marty Lowe, running backs Mike Hayes and Gerald Ware, receivers P.J. Johnson and Cory Simpson and kicker John Becksvoort gave the Lions all the ingredients — size, speed and an air of confidence — to win it all. But instead they didn't even make it past the first round of the playoffs as Cleveland upset them 18-16 when Becksvoort narrowly missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
A decade later, one year after they finished with a losing record, nobody could have expected the program's first run to a state championship. But led by junior Gerald Riggs Jr., who rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns in the title game, was named Mr. Football in the state and went on to become the nation's No. 1-rated running back prospect, the Lions rose to No. 9 in the USA Today poll.
Just one week before the 2000 season opener, coach Tom Weathers' wife, Lynda, passed away. Before her death she had written a letter to the team thanking the players for their concern and their support of her family, and each week before the team would take the field, a different player would stand in front of the Lions in the locker room and read her inspirational words aloud. Lynda's letter encouraged the team to finish strong and "go all the way," and rarely was there a dry eye in the room by the end of the reading.
Snow fell in heavy flakes during the state championship game at Middle Tennessee State University, leaving around two inches of white powder covering the turf by game's end. After the Lions finished off a 15-0 season by becoming Hamilton County's first, and still only, team to win a title in the state's largest classification, several players lay flat on their backs making snow angels on the field.
With apologies to Cleveland's run of consecutive state championships — which included a 54-game winning streak from 1993 to 1996 — Red Bank is still the best prep football team I've seen from our area.
Stars shine at night
The packed gym at Brainerd High felt more like a sauna on most game nights, and that was not by accident. Because the Panthers were going to press opponents from one end of the court to the other and try to run them ragged, legendary coach Robert High always made sure the heat setting was somewhere around "hell" for every home game.
Before each game, High, with a towel over one shoulder, would stand next to longtime assistant Bill Byron, who would have a lollipop resting in his jaw, watching warmups as Club Nouveau's "Lean On Me" and Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" blared over the P.A. system.
High was one of the first coaches who understood the "look good, play good" premise for his players, and for most big games the Panthers wore their red uniforms with the white stars trimmed in blue along the side because, as he said, "The stars shine at night."
"We might get beat, but we're going to look good doing it," High once said.
And sure enough, any time Brainerd made it to the state tournament — which was 14 times during High's tenure — as players would walk single-file down the steps at MTSU's Murphy Center, every head in the arena would turn and watch the Panthers, in their matching warmup gear, strut their way toward the floor.
Brainerd was so dominant in those days that as each game neared its end, you could always count on a section of its fans to stand and begin taunting the visitors with the chant, "Grab your coat, your brim and get up out of our gym!"
High, who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of the state's prep basketball coaches, won more than 1,000 games and directed 20-win seasons in 31 of his 37 years coaching the Panthers. He also produced 12 prep All-Americans, and the gym is now named in honor of him and former girls' coach Carolyn Jackson.
The last of High's three Class AAA state championship teams was 1992, which remains arguably the area's best team of all time. One thing that isn't up for debate is the fact that one of that season's biggest stars, Robert's nephew Tshombe High, is the greatest dunker the city has produced. Months before helping lead the Panthers to the '92 state title — along with point guard Chad Davis and fellow slasher Eddie Kellum — Tshombe won the dunk contest at the Arby's Classic by taking off from the foul line and clearing four adults who were lined up in the lane just in front of the basket.
There were many games that season when, if Brainerd won the opening tip, the designed play was for Davis to lob an alley-oop for Tshombe to throw down a dunk and set the tone right away.
"Everything that became a part of our tradition was done by design," Coach High said. "From the way our kids dressed and carried themselves to having that play for the dunk off the tip. We wanted to let folks know what they were in for when they stepped on the court."
If the doors had been locked, they would've run through a wall
Standing in the back of Marion County's locker room just before the 1992 football state championship game at Vanderbilt, I listened in on what is still my most memorable pregame speech. Before taking the field to face nationally ranked and reigning state champion Brentwood Academy, Marion coach Ken Colquette didn't let the fact that his team was a prohibitive underdog prevent him from lighting the Warriors' fuse.
"Pretty much their whole team is going to play college ball somewhere," Colquette began as he surveyed the room to make sure all eyes were on him. "Most of y'all ain't going anywhere except back to Jasper to work on a farm or in some factory. They've got all these Saturdays coming up where they'll still be playing and you'll be watching them or riding some tractor. But you've got tonight. You've got tonight to show them suckers something about us. You can make them remember you for as long as they live with what you do tonight."
If the metal doors had been locked, players likely would've knocked down the cinder block walls to get to the field after that.
After falling behind 13-0 the Warriors did, in fact, show BA and the rest of the state something. Marion scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes to rally for a 28-26 win that former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter still calls the biggest upset in championship game history.
The loss was so devastating that the Eagles left the runner-up trophy on a bench on their sideline, declining to take it with them. It was only after a TSSAA official boarded the team bus, just before it pulled out, and ordered coaches to come claim their silver trophy that a team manager was sent to retrieve it.
That "little girl from Chattanooga" became special
There was a buzz in the stands, beginning softly and growing noticeably louder, as Howard freshman LaQuisha Jackson took the baton for the anchor leg of the state's 4x100-meter relay in fifth place and by the straightaway chased down and passed the four runners ahead of her. It literally looked like everyone else in the race was merely jogging as Jackson sped past.
Howard's incredibly talented sprinter burst onto the state's prep sports scene in 2009 by winning state titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, then anchoring come-from-behind championships in the 4x100 and 4x200 relays. It didn't matter how much of a deficit the Lady Tigers left her facing: Once Jackson got the baton, the race was hers.
The following spring many in the crowd of more than 4,000 at the MTSU track facility filled the stands specifically to watch her, including TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress, who hurried over from the softball state tournament and said, "I've been waiting all day to watch this little girl from Chattanooga that I've heard so much about."
Jackson didn't disappoint, setting state records that still stand in the 100 (11.46 seconds) and 200 (23.86) and again anchoring state titles in the 4x100 and 4x200. Injuries over her last two varsity seasons limited Jackson to only one more state title, but she remains the most dominant prep athlete — male and female — I have covered.
After also setting an AAU national record in the 400, she was rated the nation's No. 1 sprinter, graduating with nine state titles — she never lost an individual event — before signing with San Diego State, where she set three Mountain West Conference records. She finished her career at the University of Missouri, setting six school records and earning second-team All-America honors, and narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics.
Catherine Neely, known to the thousands of girls who played for her simply as "Mama Cat," was one of the first true legendary coaches from our area to make me feel welcome covering her teams.
During timeouts she would lean into her team's huddle to make eye contact with each player and send them back onto the court with either a pat on the back or a fiery speech because she understood the right buttons to push to motivate and get the best out of her teams.
In 2012 the longtime East Ridge coach and administrator became the first female from Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. In her remarkable 50-year career as volleyball coach, Neely's teams won 1,390 matches, which ranks third all-time nationally, and made 16 appearances at the state tournament, winning two titles. She also compiled a 626-354 record in 43 years of coaching the Lady Pioneers basketball team, and the school's gym is rightfully named in her honor.
"What in the world were we doing playing softball at 2 a.m.?"
Before the Spring Fling was established in 1993, Chattanooga hosted the state softball tournament each year at Warner Park. The Scenic City always has been the state's softball epicenter — only four times in the past 39 years has there not been at least one Chattanooga-area team with a state title — and it was in large part because of the success of that event that the Spring Fling was formatted and our city was chosen to host for the first nine years.
And it was softball again that became the biggest story from the inaugural Spring Fling. On the way to leading Baylor to a championship, Amy Robertson outdueled Brentwood's Amanda Fine in a game that lasted 4 hours, 33 minutes and ended in 16 innings at 2 a.m. Those two pitched every tension-filled inning of the game, combining for 35 strikeouts and, long before Twitter or even a cellphone in the hand of practically everyone, Robertson became the first bona fide star of the Fling as word spread about the game that night.
"What in the world were we doing playing softball at 2 a.m.?" the TSSAA's Carter joked. "Instead of the crowd getting smaller as it got later, more people would show up from other events as word spread. That may be the greatest accomplishment in the history of the Spring Fling.
"It pretty much set the standard."
Robertson pitched a grueling 48 innings in 36 hours, allowing just three hits and striking out 63 batters. After beating Ooltewah in the first game of the championship series, Robertson came back Saturday afternoon — hours after the commencement ceremony in which she wore her uniform under her graduation gown — to pitch 12 innings in a 2-1 championship win.
Kelli Howard Smith played shortstop that season and has been a part of all 13 state-title softball teams for Baylor, two as a player and 11 as coach. I sat with her dad, the late Don Howard, through many Spring Fling innings while he whittled three-inch pieces of cedar into miniature bats that he would give to players after the games.
"I've been fortunate to experience the Spring Fling as a player and a coach, and the thing that always stands out to me every year are the kids' faces," Smith once said. "Seeing that excitement on their faces, that's what high school sports is all about."
Close to 4,200 athletes compete each year in the five sports — baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and track and field — that make up the Olympic-style Spring Fling, and Tennessee remains the only state in the nation to host such a multisport prep championship event.
After growing the event into a multimillion-dollar attraction, Chattanooga lost it to a much larger bid by the city of Memphis, which hosted from 2003 to 2005. But that decision created one of the biggest busts in TSSAA history.
Because Tennessee is such an elongated state, stretching more than 520 miles from Johnson City to Memphis, teams from the northeastern corner were forced to make an 11-hour trip. In the same amount of time, people from that area could have driven to the Canadian border, leaving many fans opting not to make the trip and causing Memphis to take a huge financial hit.
Several Memphis facilities also weren't completed in time for competition in the first year, including softball, which had to be moved to nearby Southaven, Mississippi, marking the first time since 1948 that a Tennessee state championship was played outside the state.
The TSSAA since has settled on Murfreesboro to host the Fling, giving the event the right combination of being played in the state's geographic center and at sparkling venues.
Full Metal Lolley
One of my longest road trips to cover a prep game was to L.A. — Lower Alabama. I made the six-hour trip to Daleville, just north of the Florida state line, for North Jackson's 1993 state championship win. Chiefs coach Phillip Lolley, who went on to coach at Auburn and later became a defensive coordinator in the Canadian Football League, still ranks as one of the biggest characters our area has ever seen.
Lolley was so intense that he earned the nickname "Full Metal" after the drill sergeant character from the movie "Full Metal Jacket." He once convinced some of his players he had killed a deer by wrestling it to the ground, breaking off one of its antlers and stabbing it to death with its own antler.
Inside the North Jackson field house, Lolley had painted the visiting teams' locker room pink and white and would put out flowers, believing it would put the opponents in a submissive state of mind. On the other end of the building the Chiefs were surrounded by red-and-black walls, because Lolley believed those were "the most violent colors," and he would crank the team's war-chant music up somewhere around jet-engine decibels.
Because Daleville was located near an Army base, the ever-paranoid Lolley refused to let his team go into the visitors' locker room until he and his staff had inspected it for recording devices. Then, just before kickoff as both teams were on the field to warm up, Lolley glared at the Daleville coaches before pulling two imaginary six-shooters from his hip and, like an Old West gunfighter, taking shots in their direction with his finger "guns." After the Chiefs had won, he wore a huge WWE-style belt that declared him the coach of Alabama's state champions.
Origins of a split
Bitterness and anger boiled over throughout the 1995 football state championship games as private schools won titles in all three games they competed in, and all by double figures. Brentwood Academy, which had an enrollment small enough to have played in 2A, chose to play up three classifications and still dominated its way to an undefeated season, outscoring 15 opponents by an average of more than 30 points, including a title-game thumping of perennial power Murfreesboro Riverdale.
As TSSAA executive director Carter waited for an elevator to take him from the press box to the field for the trophy presentation after BA's win, a voice from the Riverdale coaches' box yelled in his direction: "Private schools are 3-0!"
That night shined a spotlight on the glaring competition gap that had grown between public and private schools, marking the end of a unified group of high schools in the TSSAA. Three months later, while the boys' basketball state tournament was being played at the Murphy Center, the TSSAA's legislative council met and voted 5-3 in favor of creating a separate league for private schools that give financial aid from public schools that don't.
A group of media, myself included, who were covering the state tournament hurriedly called a news conference with Carter, leaving press row completely vacant, as games were still being played, to gather information for one of the most impactful stories in TSSAA history.
One day after the TSSAA dropped its bombshell by announcing it would move toward a public-private split — news that still had MTSU's Murphy Center buzzing — Boyd Buchanan's basketball team was able to steal some of the spotlight. Junior guard Chris Talley hit a running eight-footer in the lane that sailed just over the fingertips of Perry County's 6-foot-10 post Kirk Haston, who went on to play at Indiana, and fell into the basket with 2.7 seconds remaining in the Class A title game.
The shot was part of a late rally in which the Buccaneers overcame a four-point deficit with 26 seconds remaining to earn an improbable one-point win. It came one day after the Bucs had made a go-ahead jumper with 12 seconds remaining to upset top-ranked Trenton Peabody by a point, all making for an unlikely championship run.
That fall Talley and company took the momentum from the basketball state tournament run and, under new head coach Robert Akins, helped lead what had been a struggling football program to a 10-0 regular season and its first playoff appearance that eventually reached the quarterfinals and laid the foundation for what became one of the city's most successful programs of the past 20 years.
Boyd Buchanan's success in those sports in 1996 also began the whispers among public schools that it wasn't just the larger private schools, but all of them that needed to be exiled into a separate division.
Supreme Court gets involved
A side story — involving the TSSAA and Brentwood Academy — that grew from the public-private split threatened to bring down the state's governing body and create national ramifications.
By the mid-1990s BA had become the state's premier football program, including back-to-back championships in 1995 and 1996 to give the Eagles nine titles. In July 1997, only a few months after the TSSAA split private schools into a separate division, the state's governing body found BA guilty of six violations, including three for recruiting by its football program.
Former BA athletic director and football coach Carlton Flatt had given tickets to a middle school coach, who then brought two prospective student-athletes to a playoff game. Flatt also had contacted 12 incoming freshmen, detailing football practice and signing the letter "Your Coach."
The TSSAA deemed the tickets a recruiting gift and said the letter was another violation because it had been sent out before those students had enrolled at the school. BA was banned from the postseason for two years, placed on four years' probation and fined $3,000.
School administrators never denied the six violations but contended the punishment was too harsh. After losing its appeal to the TSSAA the school sued, contending its constitutional rights had been violated.
The case dragged through the courts for a decade and included 12 appeals before it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 9-0 in favor of the TSSAA in June 2007. Defending the case for so many years cost the TSSAA nearly $3 million, draining its finances, leaving it at the brink of collapse and taking years to recover.
"It was a frivolous lawsuit," Childress said. "BA never said Carlton Flatt didn't recruit those kids. It became more about the attorneys than the issues that started it."
Shattered backboards, peak hoops
It was a battle of two state-tournament-caliber basketball teams when Brainerd took on Cleveland in the 1996 region tournament at East Ridge. But much more memorable than the matchup was a play that wound up delaying the end of the game by a day. With his team trailing, Panthers 6-foot-9 post C.J. Black — who would go on to the University of Tennessee, where he set a program record for blocked shots — rose high above several Cleveland defenders for a thunderous dunk that shattered the backboard. Shards of glass showered down on players under the basket and skidded across the gym floor, and after a long delay officials announced the game would not conclude until the following day, allowing them to install a new backboard.
On their way out, dozens of fans reached down to collect a piece of the glass as a souvenir. The next night, with the gym overflowing to the point that the fire marshal instructed East Ridge principal Ed Foster not to allow any more fans inside, Brainerd rallied to beat Cleveland in the game's conclusion.
A year later those two teams put Chattanooga basketball in the spotlight unlike it has been showcased since by meeting in the Class AAA title game. Led by Vincent Yarbrough, who was later rated the nation's No. 1 overall prospect, Cleveland won 87-79 in what was an absolute back-and-forth battle in front of a capacity crowd inside the Murphy Center. Yarbrough finished with 27 points, 16 rebounds and six blocked shots, and Panthers guard Harris Walker, who later joined Yarbrough and Black at Tennessee, scored 35 points to go with nine rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Ram train gets rolling
Tyner made the 1996 football season look easy by cruising to the state championship game before running into a buzzsaw once Memphis Melrose stepped on the Dudley Field turf in Nashville. Melrose awarded its four players who had more than 1,000 yards rushing, passing or receiving with gold cleats, and every one of them — each rated among the state's top 20 prospects — proved just how talented, and cocky, they were by high-stepping and trash-talking their way to a 32-12 win while also setting a record for most unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties in a state title game.
That included one flag on Melrose quarterback — and future Tennessee Volunteers receiver — Cedrick Wilson who, after one of his six touchdowns, jogged past the Tyner sideline, held up his gold cleats and yelled "Shine my shoes!"
A year later, with practically the same roster, Tyner was out to avenge its title game embarrassment. The Rams opened the season by thrashing Boyd Buchanan 95-3 and outscored opponents an average of 45-8, including 60-0 over Harriman in the semifinals. Late in one regular-season runaway, 230-pound fullback Kelvin Hughley — who went on to be named Mr. Football and signed with Georgia Tech — plowed over a defender on a brutally physical run. At almost the same instant as Hughley's hit, a train whistle blared from the tracks near the stadium and a Tyner player yelled, "That Ram train is coming through!"
That was the origin of a nickname that's still used by Tyner's "Ram Train" football program.
Once the Rams returned to the title game, they had to overcome a wind chill of 18 degrees and snowflakes fluttering off and on during the game. They also needed a gutsy rally that included two third-down conversions before Rory Hinton hit a diving Windarek Stewart in the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown with just more than a minute remaining. That lifted Tyner to a 13-10 win over Union City to become Hamilton County's first public school to win a TSSAA football championship.
Goose eggs for everyone
The 1998 GPS softball team became Tennessee's first to sweep its way through a state tournament without allowing a single run. The Bruisers outscored four tournament opponents 29-0.
The Suitcase Six
It wasn't their impressive record or the four SEC signees that had people talking about the Germantown baseball team that came to town for the 2000 Spring Fling. The Red Devils were met with a huge backlash from fans and opponents because of six players who had transferred to the school over the summer.
The parents of all six filed for divorce, with the mothers changing residency, which allowed the players to become eligible at Germantown. Nicknamed the "Suitcase Six," those players had met while playing on the same summer-league team in Mississippi and decided they wanted to play their senior season together. So their parents all filed for divorce and the boys moved into apartments with their mothers during baseball season.
Besides the outside backlash, the plan failed as Germantown lost the AAA state title to Murfreesboro Oakland. Incidentally, after the Fling, all six sets of parents reconciled and the following season, without any of the Suitcase Six, Germantown won the title.
There hasn't been a more fiercely competitive local coach than Bill Price, who worked at Lookout Valley, Soddy-Daisy, Bradley Central and Signal Mountain among other stops. The lasting image is of him on all fours, looking very much like a muscled-up pit bull, pounding the turf with his fist to urge his Bradley defense to make a stop.
When the Bears hosted Red Bank in a playoff quarterfinal, Price saw a flag on the field after one of his players scored a touchdown. The penalty would have negated the score, and Price was fit to be tied. Turning to look down the sideline at me, he yelled, "Hargis, you're gutless if you don't write that we're getting screwed by the refs tonight!"
But once the officials signaled the penalty was against the Lions, Price walked a few steps back toward me and said, with a little less emotion, "Never mind. It was a good call."
With his nervous pacing along the sideline and continual yelling, sometimes at no one in particular, Price never lost his intensity. He guided Signal Mountain to the 2010 2A title in only the second varsity season for the program — the fastest championship ascent for any startup program in state history.
A few years later, after the school's enrollment had increased to the point that Signal Mountain would move up to 3A, Price chose to play up two classification levels to avoid having to compete with perennial state power Alcoa in the playoffs. It was a wise move considering Alcoa owns 47 straight wins over Chattanooga-area teams, including 19 in a row in the playoffs.
Baylor's Willie Idlette, one of the most talented athletes Hamilton County ever has produced, scored 52 points by himself at the 2000 state track and field meet to lead Baylor to a team title practically by himself. Idlette — who also helped the Red Raiders basketball team to the state tournament and ran for 332 yards and six touchdowns in one game before signing a football scholarship with Wake Forest — won Division II individual titles in the long jump, triple jump and 400-meter dash and finished second in the decathlon as a sophomore. He finished his prep career with seven individual track titles and eight runner-up finishes and won the 2002 decathlon title by winning six of the 10 events.
"Did we forget something?"
Everyone has had that feeling at the start of any road trip that they've forgotten something. McCallie coaches actually did forget a key piece of what would become a state championship football team in 2001.
The Blue Tornado put together a 16-play, 76-yard drive, converting twice on fourth down — including on a fourth-and-16 — that culminated in sophomore kicker Trey Meyer's 22-yard field goal with 11 seconds to go for a 17-16 win over Brentwood Academy.
The heroic kick was made only after McCallie coaches realized, about an hour into the trip to Nashville, that they had mistakenly left Meyer behind at the school, forcing them to scramble to find him an alternate ride to the game.
"We never take a head count," McCallie coach Ralph Potter said. "I always look to see if I have my quarterback, and then I'm ready to go."
Watch your language
It wasn't any of George Carlin's "seven words you can't say on television," but during the 2001 Spring Fling, the Knoxville Bearden tennis doubles tandem of Brandon Allan and Cameron Boyd were disqualified for language. During the finals Boyd shouted "Jesus Christ!" in the presence of court official Meg Bandy and TSSAA official Jan Genosi, who entered the court and told Allan and Boyd, "Shouting 'Jesus Christ' is an automatic disqualification."
Genosi explained to Boyd that TSSAA rules allow "Jesus" and "Christ" but not "Jesus Christ" to be said. Genosi walked off the Baylor School court after defaulting Bearden, and Allan and Boyd responded by throwing their rackets at their bench.
The only other time a DQ had happened in the state tournament was in 1996 when Memphis University School lost to Baylor after eighth grader Zack Dailey shouted "This sucks!" in front of umpire Bill Johnson. The TSSAA considers "sucks" a profanity.
Definite home-field advantage
I spent an entire season following the Taft Youth Center football team in 2002, and besides the 18-foot high chain-link fence topped by spiraling razor wire that surrounded the grounds, the most lasting image came when the team hosted St. Andrews-Sewanee in the season finale.
As a reward for good behavior, some of the kids who were locked up were allowed to attend the game. When St. Andrews ran onto the field, one inmate held up a homemade sign that read, "Not in our house!"
Winning one the hard way
I was introduced to the wit of Baylor baseball coach Gene Etter during my first spring of covering games. After a Red Raiders win, a reporter from the Times was interviewing Etter and asked the coach what his team's record was. Etter paused for several seconds, looking off into the distance as if he were really concentrating on adding it up before replying dryly, "We're 1-0."
More than a decade later, in his 29th season as coach, Etter finally got to enjoy seeing his team celebrate a state championship. The Red Raiders had opened the 2003 state tournament with a loss but rallied for five straight wins, including 6-3 over Knoxville Webb in the final, and as the players dogpiled on the infield, Etter stood along the foul line and smiled widely.
For years, one of the best side attractions at a Baylor baseball game was watching Etter's wife, Eddie, picking up opposing teams' signs from her lawn chair behind home plate. If anyone could match wits with Gene, it's always been Eddie.
Feeling hot, hot, hot
When rivals Brainerd and Howard agreed to open the 2005 football season against each other at Finley Stadium, it seemed like a good idea. But by the second half of a game that kicked off in the middle of an afternoon in late August, the heat index was an unbearable 107 degrees.
When a stadium worker used a digital thermometer to record the temperature on the turf, it showed 158 degrees. As players from both teams began to dehydrate, trainers would burn their hands on players' shoes as they tried to stretch out cramped legs, and multiple players' plastic cleats melted on the bottoms of their shoes.
No respect, I tell you
Sideline conversations with coaches are rare because I prefer to be a silent observer and not interact with them until after the game ends. But there are exceptions such as when Price let me know his feelings on the penalty, and Meigs County's Jason Fitzgerald and former Polk County coach Derrick Davis have been known to tell me to watch a play they just called, expecting it to go for a big gain and then winking when it does.
But it was a coach at my alma mater who actually stopped midway through last-second instructions to fire off a wisecrack as I walked past. In 2005, after Boyd Buchanan had been highlighted by the media more than any area program for having played in three consecutive state title games, South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider stopped, mid-sentence into telling his team the first offensive play, removed his headset and said "Hey, look who's here. Boyd Buchanan must be off tonight."
Small school, big dreams
As has been the case throughout much of the past three decades, some of the biggest storylines have come from the area's smallest schools. That was the case with Tennessee Temple Academy, which overcame a tiny enrollment that hovered just above 100 to become a short-lived state power in basketball and threatened to do the same in football before finances eventually caused the school to close its doors for good in 2011.
During a 10-year span from 1998 to 2007, four different coaches guided the Crusaders to the boys' state basketball tournament, including a run of five times in six seasons, highlighted by three titles.
No single family ever has meant more to one school than the Skogens did at Temple. Three brothers — Jacob, Caleb and Seth — and their father Kevin established a local legacy that eventually became recognized statewide.
Eldest brother Jacob was a two-time MVP at the state tournament, leading Temple to titles in 2002 and 2003 and winning the Mr. Basketball award as a senior before signing with Mercer. Next it was Caleb who led the program back to the state tournament and followed in his older brother's footsteps by becoming a Mr. Basketball finalist.
Seth then earned consecutive Mr. Basketball finalist honors and was named tourney MVP in 2007, winding up as the school's career scoring and rebounding leader. The state never had two brothers become Mr. Basketball finalists, much less three, and Seth also set a state record for career catches, yards and touchdowns in becoming a Mr. Football finalist as well. He eventually signed a football scholarship with Furman after helping the Crusaders win a region title in that sport and reach the quarterfinals.
After serving as an assistant on Temple's first two teams to win state, Kevin took over as head coach and guided the team to a 32-3 record and its third title of the decade in 2007. He also had been the football coach from the program's inception in 2003 until 2007, and once his sons had graduated, he stepped down and the football program was dropped a year later.
I hated to see the school close because of the respect for coaches including Kevin Templeton, Dan Wadley, Skogen and Caleb Marcum and the old District 4-A battles with other local small schools inside McGilvray Gym.
Incidentally, Templeton — who is now assisting his son Josh in a revitalization project with Boyd Buchanan's basketball program — once picked up a technical foul without even uttering a word. During a region tournament in Knoxville, having seen enough of what he felt were bad calls against his team, Templeton walked onto the court, removed his glasses from his face and offered them to a referee, who promptly teed him up.
The Lamb that roared
If anyone could teach a class on how to run a prep football program, it's Calhoun's Hal Lamb, who stepped down prior to the 2019 season after 20 years with the Georgia school. Besides the unequaled on-field success, Lamb had the unique ability to teach his players how to win graciously as well as how to handle losing with class, although his teams rarely felt the sting of a loss.
In his time with the Yellow Jackets, Lamb compiled a 233-37 overall record, winning GHSA state championships in 2011, 2014 and 2017. The Yellow Jackets were state runners-up five times (2005, 2008-10, 2012) and reached the semifinals two other times. His teams earned a state-record 18 consecutive region titles and won 138 straight region games from 2001 until his retirement.
Eight hateful miles
One of the great things about our area's prep sports scene is that there is no shortage of intense rivalries. Whether it's Baylor-McCallie, Bradley Central-Cleveland or Brainerd-Howard, every year you're guaranteed to have some memorable clashes that will cause the players, coaches or fans to lose their patience and tempers with the other side.
But none of those are even in the same zip code as our area's — and likely the state's — most hostile rivalry: Marion County versus South Pittsburg. The two football programs have more state championships, more playoff wins and more all-state players than every other area school, and that success — by two schools located just eight miles apart — has caused the communities to be insanely jealous of each other.
Typically it's just small-town shenanigans between the two schools. But every so often it becomes much bigger, and never was that more in the public eye than in 2013, when we had the rare experience of an area story blowing up nationally. On Halloween, the night before Marion was to host South Pittsburg with the region title on the line between two state-ranked teams, then-Warriors head coach Mac McCurry instructed three assistants to vandalize the team's fieldhouse with orange and black spray paint to make it look like it had been done by Pirates supporters.
That storyline marinated throughout the day, and TV stations and other media descended on Jasper to cover the incident. Just days after the Pirates had won on the field, their fans were exonerated when investigators discovered evidence that revealed it had been an inside job.
The details trickled out through local media and were eventually featured nationally by ESPN, Dan Patrick's radio show and NBC's Keith Olbermann. Text messages between the coaches discussing how to pull off the caper were made public, and the lead detective even discovered video surveillance from a local Walmart of one of the assistants buying the orange and black spray paint while still wearing his purple-and-white Marion County coach's shirt and cap.
It all led to McCurry's dramatic resignation and the three assistants being forced to leave the team as well.
Weeks later, the remaining coaching staff helped Marion on an inspired playoff run at the same time South Pittsburg was making its own push deep into the postseason. Knowing the Marion players had nothing to do with the incident, and wanting to find a way to bring the two communities together, South Pittsburg principal Danny Wilson instructed students from the school to check out early and line the streets along the route where Marion's team bus would pass on the way to the interstate for the trip to their quarterfinal game at Trousdale County.
As the buses passed and the South Pittsburg students, along with faculty and a few fans, gave a half-hearted wave, they were met by blank, confused stares from the Warriors inside their bus. Then one player seated near the back window raised his hand, pressed it against the glass and gave the waving Pirates contingent the middle-finger salute.
Several South Pittsburg students returned the favor, flipping off the bus as it steamed by, and one Pirates football player yelled in Wilson's direction, "See, they don't want us here any more than we want to be here!"
That brief interaction, more than any other, summed up the antagonistic relationship between the two rivals.
An image that says it all
The thing I've always loved most about high school sports is the purity of competition. The emotion is raw and real, and whether it's the unbridled joy of winning a championship or a game or simply scoring for their team, or the complete heartbreak after a tough loss, teenagers' expressions will tell the story of the moment.
Never was that more obvious than watching Austin Clark, the Hixson football player with Down syndrome, celebrate after crossing the goal line for a touchdown in the 2013 jamboree. Pumping his left fist in the air and cradling the football tightly under his arm, Clark was mobbed by the entire team as his fellow Wildcats joined him in the end zone.
I realized then how fortunate I have been to witness such moments.