Science Hill’s latest Hall of Fame class was inducted Saturday, a dozen Hilltoppers bridging the gap between the Greatest Generation and Generations X and Y.
As a child, Jim Starr went with his father to watch Plowboy Farmer’s 1939-40 football teams go 20-1-1 while marveling at Hilltoppers such as Kermit Tipton and Jack Osborne. Starr hadn’t grown much by the time he was in high school and his parents had divorced. So Starr was team manager for whatever sport was in season while adopting Science Hill track/basketball coach Sidney Smallwood as a father figure.
These days, Starr looks in on the 97-year-old Smallwood, the patriarch of Science Hill athletics.
Bob “Weasel” Ellis won two state titles in the high jump (1950-51), but nothing measured up to being with his father in the jumping pit behind his house. Indeed, Ellis, a three-sport standout who started in state tournament baseball games, seemed most proud to reveal that his father could jump about as high as him even when dad was starting to get up in age.
David Hollowell and Mike Kuziola wrestle emotion talking about the impact of their coach at Science Hill, Tony Farrace. None of Farrace’s wrestlers hated losing more than Hollowell, who placed fourth at the state on Farrace’s first team at Science Hill (1971-72).
Also a starter in football, Hollowell still carries the names of Snake Evans’ coaching staff on the tip of his tongue. He wanted to be a coach and help mold men, and he became a national Hall of Fame coach for his work at Greeneville and Briarcrest Christian, where he now coaches.
Most of his accomplishments were gravy. Hollowell’s career was essentially complete in the late 1970s when his Greene Devils finally topped Farrace at Science Hill.
Kuziola might’ve been Farrace’s best wrestler. He finished state runner-up as a senior thanks to a bitter decision he’ll still be digesting on his deathbed, and he atoned by pinning the same opponent in a rematch.
Farrace had such respect for Kuziola, who went on to a Hall of Fame wrestling career at Middle Tennessee State, that he returned to the mat for him. Kuziola convinced Farrace to wrestle in a Tennessee Pride tournament when Farrace wasn’t exactly in peak condition.
Farrace’s talent and passion prevailed, though he said he had concerns about a potential heart attack by the time he reached the final. Kuziola urged him not to quit before the final, and Farrace ignored his pounding heart out of respect for the heart of his young champion.
Ray Judy coached cross country, track, golf and football during his 30 years at Science Hill. He coached some of the school’s all-time best golfers, including Chip Spratlin, who beat Tiger Woods in an NCAA Tournament.
But the tone in Judy’s voice suggests nothing compared to watching his son Todd pull around the edge from his guard position to help pave the way for Steve Fields when Tommy Hundley’s Hilltoppers went undefeated in 1979.
Todd Smalling won an AAU national title and ran all the way to Wall Street after being North Carolina State’s valedictorian thanks, in part, to the dedication of Science Hill people such as cross country coach Buddy Thomas and math teacher Guy Mauldin. He said Thomas was as passionate in the classroom as he was at conference meets. So was Smalling, who ran injured at a regional to help the ‘Toppers when one of nine straight under Thomas.
Susanne Land-Depka won two doubles titles with Becky McAvoy at Science Hill. Land-Depka played against Lindsey Davenport during an impressive junior career, played No. 1 for the University of Illinois and competed professionally for a number of years.
Her high school coach, Mike Voitlein, and former personal coach, Pete Zannis, speak in reverent tones when talking about Land-Depka’s power and passion.
But the ultimate in her eyes, you might surmise from an email, is having a mother who still wants to see her daughter’s name in the newspaper.
Tara Byrne joined her brother Shane in Science Hill’s Hall. Her grandfather Tommy pitched in the majors and her brother Chas pitches in the minors, but Tara is arguably the family ace.
She went to the state tournament in tennis five straight years at Science Hill and set a career wins record at East Tennessee State. But serving a legacy in a family of accomplished athletes netted her the most satisfaction.
Sherrell Gage has kept the scorebook for Science Hill basketball more than 40 years after spending the majority of two decades doing it at Boones Creek. He’s seen 60 years of quality basketball players, from the Bars’ Monroe Ellis and Toonie Cash to Science Hill’s Gary Carter, Shane Williams and Jovann Johnson.
Still, Gage is most pleased talking about what a decent high school player his late son Chad was and how courageous his son Trevor has been battling cancer for too many of the years since he was a Hilltopper football player.
Terry Dellinger received 13 letters in a three-year varsity career. He finished 10th in a conference cross country meet on a day when he was on the football practice field before and after his run.
He also found time to become an Eagle Scout, much to the amazement of all-state football teammate John Rippetoe. A brain tumor kept Dellinger’s father from attending the Eagle Scout ceremony, but Science Hill coach Bob May filled in.
Dellinger was lucky enough to get 12 more years with his father, but he’s also had a lifetime to smile when thinking of May’s kind gesture.
Bryson Bowling grew up going to Science Hill games with his grandfather, Hubert Coleman. They were best friends, a bond that defied their age gap.
When Bowling was four or five years old, they watched his uncle, Brendan Coleman, play basketball at Science Hill. Bowling wanted to be the Hilltoppers’ next Brendan Coleman – with his grandfather there proudly cheering.
Alas, Hubert died of a heart attack before Bowling reached Science Hill. But when Bowling was earning a football scholarship to East Carolina with an all-state season, helping the ‘Toppers to a state runner-up finish in basketball or running away from the pack in 400 meters victories, Hubert was there cheering in Bowling’s competitive spirit.
David Jenkins leaped over hurdles with ease, but his high school career had plenty of gravity. Jenkins won a state title in high school and set a freshman record at the University of Tennessee.
His most vivid moment, however, might be the night Dobyns-Bennett linebacker Regan Fuller died, according to Jenkins, after breaking his neck during Willis Sexton’s off-tackle run.
There could’ve easily been another death. Jenkins was one of several inductees to mention a fan who pulled a gun on Science Hill players during a 1949 game in Erwin.
While most Hilltoppers were said to have been scrambling for cover, Homer Pease went at the man. Pease was Science Hill’s seasoned veteran. He’d already been in World War II, but was sent home when the military figured out he’d lied about his age.
The 6-foot-2, 200-plus pound Pease was a legend. He wrestled a bear at a carnival – and won.
Of course, sometimes the bear gets you. Destined to make a mark, Pease was headed for Vietnam when he ran into his ole buddy Starr, who worked at the airport.
Pease referred to Starr as “Short Boy” and told him to hold down the fort in Johnson City until he got back. Although he intended nothing other than a loving sendoff with his words, Starr replied with something to the effect of, “You keep your big head down over there.”
Pease never made it back, and now Starr looks at his name on a memorial wall at Science Hill while thinking of Pease’s final departure.
Rest assured, many say, Peace would be pleased to know that Science Hill has preserved the spirited Starr’s name, too.