More than two hours before his team was scheduled to face arch-rival Kingston in an important district showdown on Friday, Scott High’s Jake Wright looked like the loneliest man in the world. In an otherwise empty Highlander Gymnasium, the first-year head coach sat alone on the end of the visitors’ bench, jotting down notes on an envelope. He was focused, zeroed in on what was, to this point, the biggest game of the season.
“Three in a row?”
That’s the question this writer posed. It was a question that might have seemed ludicrous not long ago — perhaps as recently as 13 days earlier, when the Lady Highlanders were losing by 21 against the same Kingston team in Roane County. Back then, they had just one win under their belt, and the Yellow Jackets out-scored them by 17 in the second half to win their 17th consecutive game against Scott High by a comfortable margin. Back then, Scott had just one win on the season, and looked very much like a team still struggling to learn how to win.
Here we were, though. Scott High entered Friday’s game looking for its third win in four nights. The Lady Highlanders had defeated Knox Carter on Tuesday and Austin-East on Thursday, twice going on the road to win games. Honestly, though, those were ugly wins over teams the Lady Highlanders were expected to beat.
Friday’s game was different. Not many people expected Scott High to beat Kingston. It had been seven years — 17 games — since the Lady Highlanders last defeated their biggest rival, back on Valentines Day, 2014.
Three in a row? Wright is an optimist’s optimist. He looked up from his game notes and exhaled like a coach who’s been waiting all day to exhale, holding his breath in anticipation of a huge matchup. “It would be so big for our girls,” he said. Then, he repeated: “So, so big.”
Maybe it’s the infectious optimism that Wright has injected into the Scott High program, but it just felt like “so big” was about to become reality. Never mind the 21-point defeat at Kingston less than two weeks earlier. This is a team that plays with a different kind of energy on its home floor. This is a team that lost by 33 at Cosby, then came within a breath of upsetting the Eagles at home less than 72 hours later.
Almost four hours later, Wright was hugging his senior shooting guard, Julia Butts, after she capped a 26-point performance with the biggest shot of her career: a mid-range jumper with 6.9 seconds left to lift the Lady Highlanders to a 61-59 win over the school they love to hate.
Three in a row.
If you’re from Scott High, you love to beat Kingston in anything. So a Senior Night win over the Yellow Jackets was a big deal. But the win spoke volumes in many different ways.
The last three times Scott High played on its home floor, the Lady Highlanders lost to Cosby and Fulton in games they probably should’ve won, and lost to Alcoa by 20 after leading by as much as eight in the first quarter. It felt like the team was going to have to learn how to win. It was figuring out how to compete, but sometimes getting over that hump and putting teams away is tough. That’s perhaps part of the reason why Scott struggled so much at Carter on Tuesday and Austin-East on Thursday.
But by the time Friday’s game ended, the Lady Highlanders looked like a team that had learned how to win. Kingston had several chances to steal this one, but Scott High kept answering, and then slammed the door shut.
The win was also important because it lifted the Lady Highlanders to third place in District 4-AA. They’ll have to beat Austin-East again before they can celebrate — and as Thursday’s game showed, that’ll be no easy task — but if they can do that, they’ll avoid a first round play-in game in the district tournament. Plus, they’re still in the running to perhaps finish as high as second in the district, which would allow them to host a first round tournament game.
A few minutes after Friday’s game — after Butts and fellow senior Callie Carson had been honored during Senior Night festivities — the celebration inside the Lady Highlanders’ locker room as Wright returned with his seniors could be heard throughout Highlander Gymnasium.
The celebration was warranted. It was about more than snapping a 17-game losing streak against their biggest rival — though the Lady Highlanders did that. “They understood the moment and embraced the rivalry,” Wright said later. It was a win that signaled what could be in store for a program that has spent a lot of years eyeing a return to its ‘90s success when players like Brandy Brown Rogers — who was on hand to witness Friday’s big win — and Lisa Pace and others wore the scarlet and silver.
The Lady Highlanders’ record still isn’t glamorous, just 4-9 on the season. But Friday’s win was a cornerstone win. It’s the kind of win you build a program around.
Maybe this year’s team won’t win a district championship. Maybe those seniors who carried this team to three straight wins — Butts and Carson — won’t get to experience what it feels like to achieve the ultimate goal. But, somewhere down the road, when that goal is realized, all of the players who were dousing their coach with water in the locker room after snapping a 17-game skid against their arch rival on Friday will be able to look back and say, “It started with us.”
Yes, Friday night — and the entire week — was big for the fledgling Lady Highlander basketball team. So, so big.