The 23rd annual Hardee’s Classic basketball tournament at David Crockett High School will have a little different look, although many of the participating coaches believe there could be a familiar ending.
Sullivan East, which beat Unicoi County in last season’s title game to become the tournament’s first four-time champion, enters as the favorite. The Patriots open their defense of the Hardee’s crown against Greeneville, which returns to the tournament after a few years absence.
“We’ve got a tough first-round game in Greeneville. That will be interesting to say the least,” East head coach John Dyer said at Tuesday’s press conference at the DCHS Library. “ But, we love the Hardee’s Classic. We feel fortunate to be the only team besides David Crockett to participate in it all 23 years. It’s a great way to start the season, a tournament which is very competitive and where everybody has a chance.”
If the Patriots get by the Greene Devils and through the semifinals, Dyer wouldn’t be surprised to see another matchup with three-time Hardee’s champion Unicoi County. The Three Rivers Conference rivals have met in the championship game three times, each contest marked by its high intensity.
“We’ve had some real battles here, including last year,” Dyer said. “Even before the Three Rivers was formed, we played them in the championship. We know when we play them, it’s going to be good.”
Six of the eight teams from last year’s field return with Greeneville and Happy Valley filling spots left vacant by Daniel Boone and Cherokee. David Crockett head coach Richard Tarlton, who also serves as the tournament director, believes the new additions are the perfect fit.
“Greeneville and Happy Valley are new teams for this year, but not new to the tournament,” Tarlton said. “Both should bring good, quality exciting teams to the tournament this year. We have Happy Valley in the first round and it should be a good first-round matchup for both of us.”
The tournament features teams from all classifications. Tarlton, in his role as tournament director, mixes up the teams so those from the same conference don’t face off in the opening round.
Unaka, from the Class A ranks, pulled off the biggest surprise of the tournament last season, defeating Cherokee 61-56 in first-round action. This year, the Rangers will meet another Class AAA school, Sullivan South, in the opening game of the tournament.
“This is a great early-season tournament, a real measuring stick where you get to see where your team is right off the bat,” Unaka head coach Aaron Dugger said. “It’s going to be a challenge every game you play over here. We had some success at this tournament last year and were able to build off of it.”
For a pair of coaches — Michael Smith of Unicoi County and Chuck Babb of Happy Valley — this year will mean they have participated in the tournament as players, assistant coaches and now head coaches. In addition, David Crockett principal Andy Hare, who provided the opening remarks for Tuesday’s press conference, has participated in Hardee’s Classic as a player, coach and administrator. Hare, a former Sullivan East player, remembered Babb rejecting a shot of his at an early Classic and sending the ball flying upstairs at a radio broadcast table.
Babb, who grinned as Hare recounted the story, added it’s special the Hardee’s Classic is his first tournament as the Warriors head coach after taking over from the legendary Charlie Bayless.
“I’ve come full circle,” Babb said. “When I pulled in the gate, Dale Scott was the security guard out there. He used to referee my games as a little boy and he told me how he was glad for me. It’s almost surreal for me. It’s awesome to come back to a place where you started your varsity career, at this tournament. It’s a good thing.”
The final game of the opening round pits University High against Unicoi County. Twice in recent years, the teams have battled to the wire at the tournament
The Hardee’s Classic serves two major purposes for the David Crockett program. For the basketball team, it’s an opportunity to compete for a championship, while preparing for the conference season. It’s also a major fundraiser for the Pioneers athletic program.
“For our basketball team, it’s a great honor to compete in this tournament,” Tarlton said. “It has a long tradition and it lets you know early in the year where you stand with some of the local competition. For the program, it’s a great fundraiser. We appreciate all that Hardee’s for all they do for us. It allows us to do different things throughout the year.”