Johnson City Press Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sports High schools

Road to championship a process for Elizabethton

March 9th, 2014 7:57 pm by Douglas Fritz

Road to championship a process for Elizabethton

A mountain wasn’t scaled overnight by Elizabethton’s girls basketball team. Winning a state championship is always a process.

The Lady Cyclones earned their first-ever state title with a 66-52 win over Knox Fulton on Saturday night in Murfreesboro.

State championships don’t happen because of luck. They won’t come to fruition without a lot of hard work. And they often start with a somewhat whimsical dream.

And there is almost always a crushing loss — or several — that sets the stage for a championship.

Science Hill’s boys basketball team lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament in overtime twice before capturing its first title in 1990.

Greeneville’s football team lost a heartbreaker in the 2009 finals before winning back-to-back state championships.

Unicoi County’s baseball team finished runner-up three times (1986-88) before winning back-to-back titles in 1991-92.

For Elizabethton the process was longer and strewn with “what ifs.”

It started after a pair of seasons from 1999-2001 where the Lady Cyclones were basically the plankton of Northeast Tennessee basketball. Two years: Four total wins.

But change was on the horizon. Not only were the Lady Cyclones moving from Class AAA to Class AA, they were also about to receive their first infusion of a talent cycle that is still spinning today.

Any coach worth his salt will tell you it takes good players to be successful. So when Rikki Baughman walked through the doors of Elizabethton High School, Mike Wilson knew he was about to become a better coach.

Wilson brought Baughman’s middle-school coach, Harry Farthing, on board as an assistant — adding a cut-and-dried approach Wilson said the program needed.

Baughman helped the Lady Cyclones earn 18 wins in each of her freshman and sophomore seasons, and they reached the sectional in 2003 before losing 64-54 to Austin-East.

More help came the following year, a class including Cameron Crapps and Eden Treadway. Also, Baughman’s classmate, Valnessha Redd — a track phenom — found her basketball legs.

Also a part of the early foundation days were Sarah Smith, Lacy Lane, Jordan Crowe, Tanya Dykes, Whitney Bishop, Brandi Forbes, Valerie Kauffeld and Whitney Norris. 

When Baughman was a junior, a loaded freshman class (which included 6-2 post Michaela Pietrowski, Victoria Hopson, Marti Bush, Brianne Gouge and Casey Crockett) helped push Elizabethton to district and region titles before a crushing 45-43 last-second loss to Oliver Springs in the sectional. Baughman barely missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Another strong freshman class —  including Kyla Jones, Jasmine Treadway, Hannah Fritz and Kelli Culler — came on board when Baughman was a senior. Suddenly Elizabethton was a 30-win team, and had its first-ever Class AA state tournament appearance.

The Lady Cyclones avenged the loss to Oliver Springs (43-34) in the sectional, but lost 38-29 in the quarterfinals to Chester County and then watched that team easily roll to the state title. Still, it was the first significant step toward a state championship for Elizabethton.

The Lady Cyclones would suffer two heartbreaking losses over the next two years under head coach Larry Weems. The first came in the 2006 region semifinals to Gatlinburg-Pittman, a 74-71 overtime loss for one of Eizabethton’s most talented teams.

The second one came near the end of the 2007 regular season when sophomore post Mariah Pietrowski went down with a knee injury. The team regrouped and reached the sectionals, but lost to Stone Memorial, 53-44.

After four years of building toward a state title, Elizabethton was at a crossroads as Weems stepped out of coaching. But that’s when divine intervention may have played a role.

Then-principal Eddie Pless and Wilson, now the athletic director, pestered, begged and cajoled Len Dugger to take over the girls’ program. Dugger hadn’t been a head coach since the mid-1990s with the boys. He said he missed coaching, but just didn’t see the girls program as the road back.

Eventually Dugger gave in, saying at the time he thought the Lord put him in that program to help the girls. As the season went on, there were some tough losses — including a road blowout at Unicoi County.

It’s quite possible the journey might have ended with a one-and-done season for Dugger. But the Lady Cyclones rallied for a 58-53 region semifinal win over Unicoi County, thanks in part to a stunning fourth-quarter effort from Jasmine Treadway. Then the Lady Cyclones beat South Greene 61-59 for the region title.

During the region tournament, each of the four seniors had their career-high scoring total: Jones in the quarterfinal, Culler and Treadway in the semifinals, and Fritz in the championship.

Elizabethton then lost a hard-fought 47-39 decision to Stone Memorial in the 2008 sectional, but Dugger had gained a concrete view of what he was supposed to do.

“I thought the Lord put me here to help these girls, but now I realize he put me here for them to help me,” said Dugger after the loss to Stone Memorial.

The next year, Dugger led the Lady Cyclones to another home sectional game, and this time they came through with a thrilling 55-52 win over Corryton Gibbs. Kamra Fritz had a career-high 17 points, including the eventual game-winning 3-pointer with 21 seconds remaining.

Arin Anderson and Jasmine Jefferson provided plenty of post support on that team.

In Dugger’s first state tournament game since the boys reached the semifinals in 1983, the Lady Cyclones suffered a heartbreaking 51-49 loss to Martin Westview.

Another tough region semifinal loss came in 2010, leaving Elizabethton short of the state tournament.

But the Lady Cyclones bounced back in 2011, thanks in a big way to the play of Cara Bowling, Kristen Powell, Erin Kiser and Chelsea Bowling. They won 33 games — including a school record 27 in a row — and reached the state quarterfinals again. The Lady Cyclones got help from Lindsey Norris and overcame the injury loss of Casey Jones.

Once again, Elizabethton absorbed a tough loss, this one to Cannon County by a score of 57-51.

The next year turned into a bit of a mess for the girls. It was a transition season already, and then there was a coaching change midstream as Dugger had to take over the boys’ program in the middle of December after a resignation. Wilson returned to coach the girls, and the season ended with a 45-43 region quarterfinal loss to Greeneville.

Given the option of staying with a strong boys team, or returning to the girls, Dugger chose the latter for the 2012-13 season. He lost point guard Morgan Depew to a knee injury in the middle of the season, but somehow kept the ship afloat. With impressive late-season performances from Sarah Bradley, Reazyn DeMoss, Whitney Roberts and twins Kayla and Kelci Marosites, the Cyclones finally broke through with a state tournament victory — a revenge decision over Westview, 61-48.

They got post help from Savannah Madgett and overcame the injury loss of Caley Hodge.

A hard-fought 51-47 semifinal loss to eventual champion Christ Presbyterian Academy left Elizabethton wanting more.

That set the stage for a gold-ball season this year.

All of those teary-eyed losses through the years turned out to be building blocks. Twelve years worth of players didn’t get a chance to hoist the gold ball like senior Sarah Bradley in front of hearty group of Cyclones’ fans on Saturday night at Murphy Center in The ‘Boro.

However, 12 years worth of handprints were all over that gold ball.

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