It was as good as it gets for David Crockett.
The Pioneers won their own Hardee’s Classic basketball tournament last November in the best fashion possible. In front of a packed gym and facing archrival Daniel Boone in the championship game, the Pioneers etched out a 71-67 overtime victory. Crockett head coach Richard Tarlton said the victory easily ranked as the top moment of last season.
“It was a night full of excitement and it got our team off to a great start on the season,” Tarlton said Tuesday at the school’s press conference. “To win the tournament motivates your team and gives them hope for the upcoming season. It’s all about having confidence, building momentum and creating higher expectations for your program.”
Led by tournament MVP Zack Garland’s 18 points and 13 rebounds in the final, it was the Pioneers’ third Hardee’s Classic title. It tied them for the most championships all-time with Unicoi County and Sullivan East, the only school besides David Crockett to be in all 21 previous tournaments.
Sullivan East is back again for the 22nd edition of the tournament and will face Daniel Boone in the opening round.
“We always feel like this is a great way to start the season,” Patriots head coach John Dyer said. “Everybody feels like they have a chance to win the bracket. That’s what neat about this tournament. It has a great local flavor and as long as they continue inviting us back, we’ll be a part of it. We love the Hardee’s being a part of our tradition.”
Daniel Boone, fresh off last year’s title game, faces a tough road in search of its first Hardee’s title. Making a sixth straight tournament appearance, Boone would face the winner of David Crockett and University High in the semifinals.
“There’s a lot of tough matchups, a lot of good teams, so it should be a very exciting tournament this year,” Arnold said. “Sullivan East isn’t who I would have picked if I had to play somebody in the first round. But, it will be good for us because they’re going to challenge us, going to push us.
“Of course, we’d like to win the Hardeee’s. We’ve runner-uped twice and I would really like to win one. The championship last year was maybe the best atmosphere I’ve seen at a Hardee’s (Classic).”
Unicoi County is always among the favorites with a third-place finish in last year’s tournament and three wins in four years from 2005-08. Led by talented senior Austin Hensley, Unicoi head coach John English returns a team which ranks among the favorites in the Three Rivers Conference.
The Blue Devils, who made it to the sectional round of the Class AA playoffs last season, face Sullivan South from the Big Eight Conference in the opening round.
“We’re excited about our team and we’re looking forward to getting into this tournament,” English said. “We think there are some good teams here. It’s a good place earlier on to see where you are, to play good teams and get a gauge of where your team is at.
“It’s a big deal to all of us. You feel like if you can come down here and beat three teams to win it, you’re playing good basketball.”
Four Northeast Tennessee leagues are represented including the smaller schools of University High and Unaka from the Watauga Valley Conference. If history is any indication, the opening-round game between the Junior Bucs and host Crockett should be a doozy.
“We’re fired up and ready to get going,” UH head coach Justin Penley said. “We’ve had some great games previously whenever we’ve been matched up. We usually play well in the first and second round games here. I just don’t know what to expect from my own team, let alone anybody else’s team.”
From the coaches’ picks, Cherokee is the early favorite to win its third Hardee’s Classic title. Crockett’s coach would love for the host school to become the first four-time champion, but knows this year’s field could be one of the closest ever.
“First of all, it was great to join Unicoi County and Sullivan East as three-time champions last season,” Tarlton said. “But, you look at the 22-year history and no school has won more it more than three times. It tells you how competitive it is year in and year out. It will be a hard fought battle to come out of here with a fourth tournament win.”