HUNTSVILLE — Before the 2019-2020 season began, Scott High head coach Jordan Jeffers laid out his team’s goals in an interview with the Independent Herald.
“We want to win 20 (games),” he said. “We were so close to that last year. We don’t want to play in that 4-5 game in the district tournament. We want to host a region tournament game, which means you’re playing in the district championship game.”
Then, he added, “That may be lofty, I guess. But, at the same time, we made a jump last year, kind of a year ahead of schedule, almost. What if we can make another jump ahead of schedule this year?”
As it turned out, the Highlanders did just that. They did win 20 games — 24, in fact — and they did avoid playing in the 4-5 game in the district tournament, finishing in third place in District 4-AA’s regular season. They didn’t get to host a region tournament game, falling to Fulton in the district semifinals after leading throughout the first half, but they were close.
On Monday, the IH asked Jeffers to reflect on his season. Did he really think in June, when the Highlanders were competing on the summer camp circuit, that his team could win 24 games and compete for a district championship?
“No way,” he said. “No way. We had an okay summer, but we just didn’t have a great summer. Trey (Morrow) had the flu all summer. Goody (Logan Goodman) was still not in great shape. But we were competitive. We won enough games and beat good enough teams to get glimpses of what we could be.”
From there, Scott High went to work on making improvements. It paid off. Oneida visited Highlander Gymnasium for a summer game and, in Jeffers’ words, “beat us like a drum.” By November, when the Indians visited for the Twin K Hall of Fame Classic at Scott High, the Highlanders won by 35. The obvious asterisk on that statement is that Oneida was playing without Kolby Morgan, and senior Elijah West was playing in his first game back from football. But in a rematch at Oneida in December, the Highlanders again defeated the Indians in a close battle.
“Even when Oneida beat us like a drum last summer, we could see glimpses of, this is going to be really good for us if we ever figure it out,” Jeffers said. “And then we went on and became the best offensive team I’ve ever coached.”
This season, which saw the Highlanders win 24 games and make believers out of the rest of District 4-AA, feels like the program is still a year ahead, said Jeffers, who is in his fourth year at the helm of his alma mater’s basketball program. But, he said, it’s a credit to this year’s seniors. There are three of them, all from Fairview, and all three of them joined the Highlander program the same year Jeffers did.
“I thought Goody said it best,” Jeffers said. “He said, ‘We got the opportunity to be on Pilot Prep Sports (a Knoxville TV show), we got the opportunity to do a lot of really cool things this year. As a freshman, we won single-digit games.’”
Indeed, it seemed, back in 2016-2017, when Jeffers was hired after summer camps and just before the start of the season, that it would take the Highlanders a long time to return to respectability.
“We were really struggling,” Jeffers said Monday. “And as seniors, those guys went out winning 24 games. They won the Christmas tournament. They were in four dog fights with the team that finished second in the state the last two years (Fulton).”
Joining Goodman in this year’s senior class are Jon Hayden Strunk and Mason Owens. Jeffers said one thing that made the group unique was their ability to adapt to their roles. Goodman played a lot of minutes throughout his high school career, when he was healthy. He missed his sophomore season with a knee injury. Strunk returned to the starting lineup this year. Owens came off the bench in a role as the Highlanders’ defensive specialist.
“Those guys have been the core, and each one brings something different to the table,” Jeffers said. “Their willingness to stick together, work hard and accept different roles was big. We had young guys who came in and played a lot of minutes, like Trey Morrow and Luke West, and those guys embraced them with open arms.”
So, as those seniors who came in with Jeffers prepare to graduate, they can look back and see that they had a hand in building something at Scott High. This year’s Highlander squad was 16-0 and state-ranked heading into January. The season was always going to be defined by how Scott performed against the “big three” city schools in their league — Fulton, Alcoa and Austin-East — and they were a combined 1-7 against those schools. But that record is deceiving. In the regular season, Scott had a chance to beat Fulton in the final 20 seconds at home and led by as much as 12 against Alcoa on the road. In the postseason, the Highlanders led Fulton for much of the first half in the district semifinals, and led by as much as eight in the first half against the Falcons in the Region 2-AA semifinals.
It has been a process. And if it’s a process that has moved at a pace that is a little ahead of schedule, it’s mostly because of guys like Trey Morrow. He averaged a double-double as a freshman and was, statistically, District 4-AA’s best player. This year, as a sophomore, he averaged 25 points per game in four meetings with Fulton.
“Guys like Trey Morrow just make you better in a hurry,” Jeffers said.
Looking back, he reflects on how close the Highlanders were to taking the next step a little ahead of schedule all along. In his first year, the Highlanders went to Fulton and led until the third quarter in the region quarterfinals.
“We were always just going to play really, really hard, and try our best to do things right and outwork everybody,” Jeffers said. “We want to be a program where everything is earned and nothing is given. Our league has changed but one thing is consistent: it’s a tough one. It consistently sends two teams to the state tournament every year.”
Along the way, Jeffers said, he and his top assistant — Derek Boshears — would reflect back and take note of the things they could have done differently.
“You learn so much every year,” he said. “Every step has prepared us for this season and for the kind of take-off like a rocket ship that we’ve experienced this year. Sometimes you gotta get there and lose before you get there and win. That’s what we told our guys. It’s always a process. It’s a process in the NBA, it’s a process in college basketball. Oneida went through the same thing. They were in the substate last year and this year they’re probably gonna win and get to the state tournament.”
However close the Highlanders may have been in years past, this year was undeniably a defining moment. It was reflected not just in Scott High’s record, but in the number of people who are showing up for games. A defining moment was the region quarterfinals, when the Highlanders made the 2.5-hour drive to Gatlinburg, and still out-numbered Gatlinburg-Pittman fans by a two-to-one count. The Highlanders upset the District 3-AA runner-up that night to tie the 2009-2010 Highlander team for the second-most wins in school history, at 24.
According to Scott County Director of Schools Bill Hall, a former player and coach at Scott High, the program record for wins came in 1981-1982. That year, first-year head coach Mike Lay led the Highlanders to a 25-6 record. The team was dubbed “Mike’s Midgets” because none of the starters were taller than 6-1.
There were some other good teams along the way. The 1996-1997 team finished 21-9 and advanced to the substate, losing to Livingston in the region championship game. The 1997-1998 team was 23-6 and won a district championship before losing to Harriman in the region semifinals.
But the 2019-2020 Highlanders certainly rank up there as one of the top teams in school history. Now the key, Jeffers said, is to focus on sustainability and make sure this year’s team wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
“One good thing about it is that we have really good community involvement right now,” Jeffers said. “We’ve got people who are fired up about it. Our following at games has been great. There’s excitement within the community, and that’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to get these second, third and fourth graders out to games and have them look up to people like Trey and Goody and Jon Hayden and know that they want to be Highlanders.
“It’s a big change,” he added. “Just to be able to compete in this district is a change. It gives us a little credibility in this community. Not that Derek and I are great coaches, because we’re not, but it’s hard sometimes when you’re a local dude to coach at your home school and get respect from the community. We’ve proven this year that we can compete — not just at the local level but at the district and region level.”
Ever working, Jeffers and Boshears have seen their AAU program double in size in its second year, with twice the kids involved in it as were involved in last year’s inaugural season. It’s another step towards where they want the Highlander program to be.
“We want this thing to last past Logan Goodman,” Jeffers said. “We want it to last past Trey Morrow.”