Northeast Tennessee has enjoyed embarrassing riches of high school basketball coaches through the years.
That legacy can make it easy to overlook impressive efforts on the bench in contemporary times — like what Ken Cutlip has done this season.
However, the Science Hill head coach earned a lion’s share of respect for the job he did in getting the Hilltoppers to the state tournament this season. If the ’Toppers cap it off with a good run this week in Murfreesboro, area fans should view Cutlip in a different light — ironically for the very reason people have criticized him in the past.
Some folks viewed Cutlip as a coach who had enough talent on hand to have more than just a pair of state tournament appearances and no Murfreesboro wins in seven seasons. Such talk came at the expense of five 30-win seasons in that stretch, no small feat at any high school.
But this year the Hilltoppers lost arguably their top two players to an offseason defection to a private school. Then the injury bug started biting, and biting hard.
By the time football season was entering the playoffs, Cutlip may not have had enough bodies and talent to beat a really good Class A team. By tournament time, the Hilltoppers were 34-2 — the best record for any team under Cutlip’s watch. His career mark on The Hill stands at 242-54, an average record of 30-7.
One of the great things Cutlip did to make this season special was believing in the program. He could have whined continually and publicly about the brutal adversity that came his way, but instead he went about the business of coaching.
Once the season started, that coaching transformed the Hilltoppers into a big-time winning bunch. By midseason, it was clear they were the class of the Big Eight Conference — a league some observers thought they might struggle to win.
Not only did they win it, they did it without losing a game.
The Hilltoppers swept through the district and region tournaments, receiving only marginal resistance. Then they brushed aside a competitive Maryville bunch in the sectional to return to the state for the first time since 2009.
For a school that once made eight straight trips to the state tournament (1993-2000), only going three times in 12 years hasn’t been happy times. But this one came against all odds.
People weren’t picking Science Hill as a bet to reach the ‘Boro, but they did it with a teamwork mentality — a sign that clearly points to a rock-solid coaching staff. As Maryville coach Mark Eldridge said, the Hilltoppers share the basketball as well as any team in the state.
Credit good kids for that, but also credit Cutlip.
Things have played out nicely for Science Hill with all but two of the top 10 teams in the state getting upset in the postseason. That doesn’t guarantee state tournament success for the Hilltoppers, but it is a good deal for a coach who has continued to do things the right way — staring down the face of misfortune and not blinking.
His reward is a legitimate chance at state success, beginning Thursday at 12:45 (EDT) against Wilson Central.