Northeast Tennessee doesn’t have a gold ball, but it certainly has a state-level voice in girls basketball.
Science Hill’s second straight run to the Class AAA championship game, Elizabethton’s march to the Class AA semifinals, and a Carter County duo in the Class A quarterfinals — losing competitive games to the two finalists — has solidified this area as a major player in the state-title conversation.
And it’s not too far-fetched to think it could happen as soon as next year, and come from a Tri-Cities area team — something that has never happened before.
Both Science Hill and Elizabethton were whisper-thin margins away from gold balls this year. The Lady Hilltoppers were within two points of Murfreesboro Riverdale early in the fourth quarter Saturday, and a few more positive plays in that crucial stretch perhaps could have changed the 78-69 outcome.
As for the Lady Cyclones, they had Christ Presbyterian Academy backed into a corner with a 12-point second-half lead and a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. If a few more shots had fallen, the 51-47 defeat might have been reversed.
Then Elizabethton had to agonize — and feel better at the same time — as CPA went on to win its second straight state title on Adela Franco’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
To sum it up, Science Hill and Elizabethton were just a couple of baskets, and a handful of plays away from conquering the state. And their performances helped build a foundation for Northeast Tennessee.
“It means a lot to Science Hill and girls basketball, but it means more to Northeast Tennessee girls basketball,” said Lady Hilltoppers head coach Darrell Barnwell. “The rest of the state is starting to see Northeast Tennessee teams can compete. In years past, you hadn’t really seen it.”
Over two decades ago, teams like Unicoi County and Happy Valley competed on a high level in the Class AA ranks. Both posted state runner-up finishes.
South Greene won four Class AA state titles, and Dobyns-Bennett had a Class AAA semifinal appearance.
However, for about 15 years there wasn’t much noise at the state level — except for a South Greene state final appearance in 2000.
Then Elizabethton started climbing the Class AA ladder, and the Lady Cyclones lost by just nine points to eventual champion Chester County in 2005.
Then Hampton reached the semifinals in 2009. And in 2011, North Greene did everything but finish off Wayne County in the Class A title game.
For many years, girls teams would head to Murfreesboro with a hope of just coming close. These days, teams seem to go in with an attitude of expecting to win — and it makes a big difference.
“You saw a different group this year,” said Barnwell. “In the first two games, they weren’t nervous. They were excited about one thing, and that was playing (Saturday).
“It’s unbelievable what this group has done. I don’t think there has ever been an area team accomplish what this team has done — and at the Class AAA level it’s tremendous. Not taking away from Class AA and Class A, but AAA is extremely tough.”
Barnwell’s assessment is correct for this year. There wasn’t a Class AA or Class A team that could compete with Science Hill or Riverdale.
However, this was a special season for those teams. There have been seasons in Tennessee history where the Class AA champions have been as good — or better — than the AAA winners.
But the main topic to focus on is how teams like Science Hill and Elizabethton can make other teams in Northeast Tennessee better. And that actually helps Science Hill and Elizabethton get better, too.
When you see a state-title threat day in and day out, you either get better or you get embarrassed because you have to play them.
Science Hill’s girls and Elizabethton haven’t played in a while, but that will change for the 2013-14 season as the schools are scheduled for a home-away series. That should be a dandy pair of games because both teams — on paper — have enough returning players to make another run at a title.
Looking at the makeup of state-level teams, it takes three big-time players to have a good chance to win in Murfreesboro. Science Hill will have point guard Tianna Tarter, post Gabby Lyon, and guard Keisha Gregory.
Another thing in Science Hill’s favor is Riverdale — barring another round of transfers — can’t be as good as it was this year. In 26 years of covering high school basketball, Riverdale was clearly the best girls basketball team I have seen. (Just as a note, I didn’t personally see the South Greene juggernaut with Debbie Hawhee and company in 1987 and 1988).
It could actually be more realistic for Science Hill to win a state title next year than it was this year.
Meanwhile, Elizabethton returns the Marosites twins, Kelci and Kayla. Granted that’s only two big-time players, but those are two of the best freshmen in Northeast Tennessee since Tennessee High’s Courtney McDaniel in the 1990s. The Marosites both need to get physically stronger, but the ceiling is high.
Still, to win a state championship, Elizabethton likely needs another big piece to the puzzle. However, the Lady Cyclones have a whole cast of really good complements to the Marosites, and maybe there will be strength in numbers.
As for Hampton and Cloudland, each team has enough returning players to threaten the city limits of The ‘Boro once again. Each team will need some of their key players to upgrade their games to make up for the losses of Dorothy Dugger (Hampton) and Brooke Rhodes (Cloudland).
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WETP-TV, Tri-Cities Channel 2, really dropped the ball Saturday, which won’t help the public television station get donations from this part of the state.
The Science Hill-Riverdale game didn’t materialize until very late in the fourth quarter because of satellite issues. Lady Hilltoppers fans were forced to scramble to the internet to cough up the $3.95 — the first year the TSSAA has charged for this service — to view a streaming version of the game.
However, kudos to the TSSAA for not trying to profit from the situation. Assistant executive director Matthew Gillespie said Sunday, “All events can be viewed for free by anyone “on demand” on the network website. Anyone who did pay to watch the Class AAA stream can be given a full refund by contacting the network at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
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After sparse support for its first two games, Science Hill had a hearty group of fans for Saturday’s championship.
Of course, Riverdale had far more fans. But that’s to be expected for the hometown team.
Playing against one of the Murfreesboro teams in the title game will never be easy because of the fan support. But the tournament location is the best fit.
Murfreesboro is the geographical center of the state, and it has hordes of hotels and restaurants to handle both the boys and girls events.