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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / McCallie tennis coach Jeff Clark clutches a TSSAA championship plaque late last month in Murfreesboro as Blue Tornado director of tennis operations Eric Voges looks on. The Blue Tornado played all season as the nation's No. 1 team, according to the Universal Tennis rankings, and Voges was a McCallie student when the 1977 team was recognized as the national champion.

It was in late February when McCallie School moved from No. 2 to No. 1 nationally in the Universal Tennis high school rankings.

The Blue Tornado then went out and posted a 15-0 record in team competitions, winning 84 out of a possible 85 singles and doubles matches. That included a 7-0 blanking of Sidwell Friends School of Washington, D.C., the 10th-ranked team according to Universal Tennis, so isn't it time to recognize McCallie as the national champion?

After all, the Blue Tornado are still ranked No. 1.

"I think we should — absolutely," McCallie coach Jeff Clark said with a laugh. "Until they come out with another ranking, I guess we still are No. 1 in the country, and that's pretty cool."

While state championships can be proven annually within the various venues of competition, national titles are significantly less tangible on the high school front. The majority of prep sports don't have historical voting entities that have bestowed national champions, and even today's recognized outlets haven't been around forever.

USA Today was founded 40 years ago, with the founding of MaxPreps 20 years ago.

High school football national champions have been around for more than 100 years due to the National Sports News Service, which determined this country's best from 1918 to 1999. That included the 1973 Baylor School team of E.B. "Red" Etter that capped its 13-0 state championship season with a 28-14 semifinal victory at Oak Ridge and a 6-0 topping of Memphis Hillcrest at Liberty Bowl Stadium.

"Some people kind of pooh-poohed that," said Randy Wilson, who was a 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior center for the 1973 Red Raiders, "and we did have a bunch of average guys like me, but we were coachable, and we had some superstars, too — guys like Andy Rutledge, Bobby Worthington, Scott Price and David Hannah, who was our only lineman over 200 pounds.

"When you delve into it, it really was quite the honor."

It didn't take long for a second Chattanooga-area high school to be rewarded with a National Sports News Service national championship, as Bradley Central claimed the crown in girls' basketball in 1975 before repeating the feat in 1976. The two national titles were part of a stretch in which the legendary Jim Smiddy won 90 consecutive contests with the Bearettes.

"Everybody just hated Bradley because they would get beat by them so bad," said Gary Ownbey, a Bradley Central historian and longtime broadcaster. "It was like everybody who hated Notre Dame football or the New York Yankees. Bradley was just winning all the games."

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Baylor School photo / Legendary Baylor School football coach E.B. "Red" Etter guided the 1973 Red Raiders to a 13-0 season that resulted in a state title and the National Sports News Service national championship.

'STILL BEST FRIENDS'

The first National Sports News Service national titles to be awarded to Tennessee schools went to the football programs of Oak Ridge in 1958 and Tennessee High of Bristol in 1972.

Bristol's crown was cemented by a 39-6 dismantling of Baylor.

"Most of us wanted to come home at halftime. It was 25-0," said Wilson, a longtime Miller & Martin attorney and Lookout Mountain resident. "I remember there being one stat to be proud of. We were the only team to hold Bristol inside the 10-yard line in three years.

"We kept them from scoring another touchdown."

Baylor became the state's No. 1 team early in the 1973 season and made some regional noise with a 42-16 throttling of Male High of Louisville, Kentucky. Rutledge sustained a leg injury late in the season that resulted in sophomore Jeff Aiken having to step up at running back, and Wilson figured the story's happy ending had transpired in Memphis.

Several weeks later, Etter gathered the team with news of the national honor.

"We were told that there was an outfit up north that had received input from an NFL coaching staff — I think it was the Minnesota Vikings, but I'm not positive," Wilson said. "Coach Etter said these guys had seen like nine or 10 of our games on film, and he added that those guys knew more about our team than he did. They were well aware that Andy Rutledge was out and that so-and-so was hurt and that Worthington had a bad knee.

"They told Coach Etter that if we had been healthy, we would have beaten Hillcrest 28-0. Coach Etter was really impressed with how much they knew about our team and how much they had studied our team. It wasn't just about our record. They really looked into it."

Nearly half a century later, Baylor's 1973 team for Wilson continues to be a gift that keeps on giving.

"Tons of us are still best friends — Allen Corey, Andy Stockett, Bobby Worthington, Clay Gibson," he said. "We see each other regularly. Like I said, a lot of us were just very average athletes, but we were coachable."

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Bradley Central photo / Bradley Central girls' basketball coach Jim Smiddy, far right, poses with his 1975 team that went 32-0 and won the first of two consecutive state and national championships.

REACHING THE TOP

Bradley Central's 90-game winning streak in girls' basketball nearly ended at 71, but Karen Mills hit a lengthy shot at the buzzer to lead the Bearettes past Smyrna in the 1976 championship game.

Ownbey still has a copy of the short-lived Joe Namath National Prep Sports magazine that documents Bradley's titles.

"Those championships meant a lot," he said. "There was always a lot of fanfare when the team came back home with the police escorts in both of those years."

The same Namath magazine in 1977 awarded McCallie with a tennis national championship. That Blue Tornado team was coached by Turner Howard and led by Tim Wilkison, who would eventually climb to No. 21 in the world and reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 1986 before losing to Stefan Edberg.

National champions can come in different shapes and sizes in college — Georgia (FBS), North Dakota State (FCS), Ferris State (Division II), Mary Hardin-Baylor (Division III) and Morningside (NAIA) won football titles last year — and it's no different in high school.

Georgia's Calhoun Yellow Jackets went 15-0 during the 2011 football season and earned the MaxPreps Small School national championship, while Hamilton Heights had its boys' and girls' basketball teams win 2018 National Association of Christian Athletes Division I national titles. Hamilton Heights won the 2016 boys' championship as well.

Baylor swimming has accounted for the most national championships of any area program, with the Aqua Raiders winning Swimming World magazine's independent school titles in 2008, 2009 and 2018, and the Lady Raiders earning independent crowns in 2009, 2010 and 2012. The 2012 Lady Raiders also landed the overall national title.

There have been national accolades from Chattanooga-area individuals as well, such as Annemieke McReynolds of GPS being the fastest 100 and 200 high school breaststroker in the mid-1990s, Baylor's Trey Freeman setting a national high school record in the 200 freestyle in 2018, Howard's LaQuisha Jackson being the nation's fastest track sprinter in 2009, and Baylor wrestler Jordan Leen winning the 2004 National High School Coaches Association's Senior Nationals title.

In the summer of 1997, Cleveland's Vincent Yarbrough was tabbed as the nation's No. 1 prep basketball prospect for the 1998 signing cycle by longtime analyst Bob Gibbons.

McCallie tennis has been the latest area program to grab the spotlight on the national stage, with the collection of junior Andreas Sillaste, seniors Will Leathers and Colin Tuttle, junior Gabe Getz, freshman Henry Imorde and senior Charlie Griffin leading the Blue Tornado to a wire-to-wire showing with that No. 1 target.

"I don't know when the next poll will come out," Clark said. "Maybe they'll keep this one forever. That would be great. We had a really great team this year, but there are a lot of great teams out there.

"We do like the sound of being No. 1."

As do those who came before and were able to reach not only the summit of a state but a country.

"I remember my father commenting at that time, and he was a very wise man," Wilson said. "We were a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds, and I remember Dad said, 'You don't appreciate this right now, but you will look back on this as quite an accomplishment.' In hindsight, it has been.

"I mean, how many teams from this area have been the national champion?"

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / McCallie teammates Andreas Sillaste, left, and Colin Tuttle celebrate a point during the Blue Tornado's 4-0 win over MUS late last month in Murfreesboro.
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