Asked to invest a little shoe leather for a walk down memory lane, Bill Birchfield was quick to his feet.
Quite naturally, the proposed subject matter — Cloudland’s 1967-68 basketball season — means a lot to one of Roan Mountain’s better-known residents.
Birchfield, you see, served as head coach for those illustrious Highlanders. They formed a 30-8 squad that reached the second round of the state tournament in Memphis, earning Watauga Conference and District 1 tournament championships along the way.
“First of all, that’s a great bunch of kids,” Birchfield said recently. “They enjoyed the game, they played hard, they were very dedicated. We had kids who managed to get in the gym on their own as well as for practice — just a great bunch to work with. And very talented, too, I might say.”
Birchfield’s bunch remains the only Cloudland team to win a state tournament game, topping Memphis Frayser 64-55 to reach the round of 16. Furthermore, the ’67-68 ’Landers share the school record (with ’64-65 squad) for most victories in a season.
Of course, the aforementioned achievements are enveloped by the fact the TSSAA had yet to implement a classification system. Cloudland produced an enrollment of about 250 students.
“Most of the other schools were much larger,” Birchfield said. “We beat Memphis Frayser in the first game of state tournament and then we had Nashville Stratford (a 66-48 winner), which was enormous in size.”
It’s now been 50 years since the Highlanders made all that hay. Their head coach, a 1961 CHS graduate and 2014 Carter County Sports Hall of Fame inductee, spoke further about a season well worth celebrating.
You were a young, second-year head coach at the time — not a great deal older than the players you were coaching. What was that like?
“Some of them were around five or six years of my age. We bonded and we did well.”
Big man Sam Rogers repeated as Watauga Conference scoring champ in ’67-68, with Junior Holdren finishing third on the regular-season leaderboard. Including tournament play, Rogers averaged 22.2 points per game and Holdren 18.2. Did you have a lot of belief in those two?
“Oh, yes. Sam, he just had it all. He could jump, he had a great fadeaway jump shot. Of course, Junior, he was just a pure shooter — and he got that by living in the gym. He just enjoyed shooting the ball, whether he was by himself or in the group.”
In regards to your other key players, what were their chief assets?
“Jerry Tipton was a tremendous point guard. John Campbell, he was a great passer. If you got a kid open, he would get the ball to him. Bill Johnson contributed on defense and rebounds. Of course, we were short-handed — we were limited by our depth. Jerry McCoury was the sixth man; he came in and helped us a great deal. He was a good shooter, also. It’s just a pleasure to have a group like that. I wish we had been classed at the time. We might have won a state championship. Unfortunately, two of those kids have passed away — Jerry McCoury and Junior Holdren have passed away. It’s just sad … you know, kids that you worked with so long. Basically, I almost grew up with them.”
Can you describe the atmosphere in the school and community as the season wore on? What was the level of jubilation?
“About as high as you could get. As a matter of fact, if you didn’t get to the school on time and you were late, you were going to be standing outside. Because we had people lined up out the door and down the sidewalk trying to get in to see the game. It was one of those things that doesn’t happen too often. Of course, the community was great. They fed us, took care of us — just an unusual situation.”
Did the fact this was your alma mater make it all a little sweeter for you?
“Oh, definitely. I’ve always been a Highlander, I guess. You know I played ball there, I coached there. It’s just great it could happen. Teams don’t get to the state tournament too often, especially at that time — which without classification you’re playing everybody.”
You guys lose a one-point game (60-59) to Science Hill for the Region I championship, and Science Hill makes it to the state final. Is that a second-to-none indicator for what kind of team you had?
“Oh, yes. My point guard (Tipton) got hurt that game and had to go out. When you lose your point guard, you’re in trouble — because he just kind of quarterbacked the whole situation. He was in charge, actually. He got the kids where they need to be. He was kind of a coach on the floor, so that helps a great deal, also.”
You went through so many big games that year. Do you have a favorite?
“I guess Tennessee High, probably. We beat them (76-60) in the district over there. They were very talented. That was big for me. And it also propelled us down the road. I think that was a lot of it.”
The Highlanders, of course, reached their first state tournament in 1966 under coach Dennis Greenwell. Does Cloudland, a very small school taking on all comers, reaching the state twice in three years measure up to anything else the school has accomplished in athletics?
“I would think so. Now we had some good football teams that got to the state playoffs, also — which was big for our community. But that was probably the biggest thing at that time.”
Do you have any parting thoughts?
“Just that it was a great bunch of kids. It’s very sad two players have passed on. The other kids, I’m sure they still bond with each other. We had a lot of other kids and subs that played on that team that added to the situations and games. You’ve got to have more than five or six to get to that point. I just appreciate their efforts. I’d also like to thank John Orr; he was my assistant. Of course, at that time, he and I were the only two coaches we had (at Cloudland). But we just worked everything together.”