Newton’s third law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — certainly applies to sporting events, where one team’s triumph is always matched by another team’s disappointment, and that’s never any more obvious than in the postseason, when entire seasons of work come down to a single, elimination game.
And, so, Monday night saw Oneida’s Marv West showing perhaps as much emotion as he’s shown all season — an exuberant fist pump — as one of his five seniors, Jacey Manis, knocked down a 3-point shot to seal the Lady Indians’ come-from-behind victory over Sunbright. On the other end of the court, Sunbright’s Rusty Yaden — once West’s coaching colleague at Oneida and now his coaching rival in Morgan County — shed tears as his team’s season came to a close.
It was hard not to feel the equal and opposite reactions of two men who stand perhaps tallest in a district full of quality basketball coaches — West’s triumph because his team is moving on to the substate for a fourth time in five seasons (more on that later), and Yaden’s disappointment because his team came up short of its ultimate goals one more time.
It’s not really our job to speculate why Yaden was moved to emotion after the Lady Tigers’ 50-42 loss to Oneida. That’s a moment for him and his team to share, privately, in the locker room. Maybe it was the realization that his two talented seniors — Taylor Cox and Jenna Shelton — saw their careers end at OHS Gymnasium on Monday. Cox especially has been a vital part of Yaden’s success at Sunbright over the past four years.
Or, maybe, it was the realization of just how close this Sunbright team was to taking the next step — a step that has proven frustratingly elusive.
It’s no secret that, for all their successes, Yaden’s Lady Tigers teams have stumbled in the postseason. His critics in the tiny Sunbright community — which have included school board members as well as school administrators at times — have been anxious to use that as fodder. His rivals aren’t likely to let him forget it.
In five seasons at Sunbright, Yaden’s teams have a combined record of 110-55 and have never finished .500 or below. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that went 21-98 in the five years before Yaden took over, hadn’t had a .500 season in 12 years and were 47-225 during that span.
To reiterate, it took Sunbright five years to amass 20 wins after a disastrous 0-24 season in 2011. Yaden won 25 games in just his second season. He has won more than twice as many games in five years as the program won in more than twice as long — 12 years — before he was named head coach.
Yet Sunbright hasn’t won a district championship or advanced to the substate, a fact that hasn’t been lost on Yaden. His teams have been plagued by postseason injuries and the misfortune of meeting the wrong teams at the wrong times.
In 2017, Yaden’s first year as head coach, his team upset Oneida in the district semifinals for its fourth win in five games before coming up short against Wartburg in the championship game, then falling against Grace Christian by a single point in the region quarterfinals.
The next year, the Lady Tigers were 25-5 and had won 13 games in a row heading into the postseason before losing three straight games — to Midway in the district semifinals, to Oneida in the consolation game, and to Tellico Plains in the region quarterfinals.
In 2019, Sunbright had won six in a row and was 25-6 heading into the postseason, before falling to a Caitlyn Ross-led Midway team in the district semifinals, then coming up short again to Midway in the region semifinals.
Last season was considered a rebuilding year for a very young Sunbright team, but they seemed to be hitting their stride as the postseason began, before again losing three straight — to Oneida in the district semifinals, to Midway in the consolation game and to Tellico Plains in the region quarterfinals.
This year might have been Sunbright’s year to finally break through and get to the substate, if not for an upset loss to Wartburg — a team the Lady Tigers had beaten by 20 and by 23 in their regular season meetings — in the district semifinals. That loss put Yaden’s team on the same side of the bracket as Oneida. Although Tellico Plains had twice eliminated Sunbright in the region tournament in Yaden’s first four years as coach, it’s easy to speculate that Sunbright would’ve gotten the Bears this year. Tellico Plains needed every minute of its game against Wartburg on Monday to survive and advance to the substate and the region championship game.
Instead, Sunbright’s road to substate led through Oneida, a team that had been dominant in district and region play. The Lady Indians entered Monday’s game having won 30 consecutive games against District 3-A and Region 2-A teams, only once having a game decided by a single-digit margin during that span and winning by an average margin of almost 30 points per game.
Yet, there was Sunbright. The Lady Tigers had used a 13-2 run in the third quarter to build a 7-point lead as the fourth quarter began, and reality was beginning to set in for some of the partisan faithful inside OHS Gymnasium.
Sunbright had already gotten one monkey off its back this postseason. The Lady Tigers had defeated Midway in the district consolation game. And not just beaten them; they dominated the Green Wave, winning 66-31. Prior to that game, Yaden was 0-4 against Mike Hayes and Midway in the postseason.
And here was Sunbright, just eight minutes away from a trip to the substate, having completely kept Oneida’s offense off-balance all night.
But Oneida is still Region 2-A’s most seasoned team, and it showed when the pressure mounted on Monday. As one of the Lady Indians’ five seniors, Katelyn Stiltner, checked into the game with seven minutes remaining, her father — Oneida bookkeeper Matt Stiltner — looked at her and said, “It’s now or never.” The senior center never batted an eye. She nonchalantly said, “We’ve got this.”
And they did. Oneida used a 19-1 run to storm from behind, holding Sunbright without a fourth quarter field goal until there were only 48 seconds remaining. And when the final horn sounded, it was the Lady Indians — not the Lady Tigers — who were headed to the substate. An elusive goal had slipped from Sunbright’s grasp. And as Oneida celebrated, Sunbright was surely left to wonder, “What is it going to take?”
The rest of the district needn’t feel too bad for Sunbright. It’s likely that the Lady Tigers will have their best chance yet to hoist a championship plaque and make it beyond the region semifinals in 2022. The team that battled Oneida to the wire on Monday loses only two seniors. And while Taylor Cox was arguably the Lady Tigers’ best player this season, Sunbright has plenty of players back — including Alexis Northrup, who scored a team-high 17 in Monday’s game. The Lady Tigers have a stable of young freshman talent, and will easily be the preseason favorite to win the district next season.
If Sunbright will leave Yaden alone, he’ll continue to do great things with a program that hadn’t known good things for a long, long time before he arrived. The numbers are worth repeating: Sunbright has won 110 games in the past five seasons, after winning only 47 games in the 12 seasons prior to that. The Lady Tigers have never won fewer than 17 games with Yaden at the helm. They had never won more than seven games in the 12 years prior to that — and had just as many winless seasons as seven-win seasons during that span.
But Monday’s game had to be gut-wrenching for Yaden, as an opportunity to take the elusive next step seemed so close at hand — only to fade away as time ticked down at OHS Gymnasium.
On the other end, of course, was the equal and opposite reaction from West and his Lady Indians, who were jubilant after their come-from-behind victory.
Oneida was not supposed to be in the situation it found itself in Monday night.
That’s true in more ways than one. On one hand, the Lady Indians had gone undefeated in district play, winning by an average of nearly 30 points per game, including a pair of 20-point wins against Sunbright. Based on the regular season body of work, Monday’s game wasn’t supposed to be close.
But before Oneida began the 2020-2021 district slate by going on the road to defeat Sunbright by 20 in December, no one expected the Lady Indians to be hosting a region semifinal game as the still-unbeaten team atop the league’s standings.
This time last year, as Oneida was winning the region championship and then advancing to the state tournament for a second consecutive year, folks elsewhere in the district openly whispered about what the Lady Indians would do for an encore. After all, they were graduating five seniors. They couldn’t possibly get back to this level again in 2021 … and some even said they wouldn’t make it out of the district as one of the four teams to advance to the region tournament.
That last year’s team was so successful wasn’t a surprise. The five seniors who graduated last year had been together since their Jr. Pro days; even back then, in youth basketball, people said that group would be the ones who would lead the Lady Indians back to Murfreesboro after a drought that had stretched on for more than a decade.
When Oneida made it to Murfreesboro in 2019 — going on the road to upset state-ranked Cosby in the substate despite losing to Midway in the district and region championship games — people said the team was a year ahead of schedule. Last year, they begrudgingly gave the Lady Indians their due, while acknowledging that this year would be a disaster without the senior leadership.
West smiled when he was asked about those comments back in November, before Oneida took the court for the first time. The off-season had been an anomaly. Coronavirus had canceled summer camps. The Lady Indians hadn’t been on the floor since they faced Loretto in the state tournament in March, one day before Covid-19 shut down basketball completely.
But West knew what he had. He pointed out that even though his team graduated five seniors, they still had a lot of experience coming back. This year’s team also features five seniors, and most of them had played key varsity minutes for at least one season coming into 2020-2021. He didn’t shy away from saying that he expected his team to compete for a district championship, even while acknowledging that Sunbright should probably be considered the favorite. The rest of the district might not have wanted to talk about it, but West knew what his girls were capable of.
Instead of limping to a fifth-place finish — or worse — in District 3-A, Oneida turned in one of the most dominant district campaigns this district has seen in a generation, going 16-0 in the regular season while winning by an average of 29 points per game, then coasting to a fourth district championship in seven years.
After a 90-29 rout of CSAS in the region quarterfinals, Oneida had won 30 consecutive games against teams in the district and region. Only one of those games had been even remotely close. And the Lady Indians were on the verge of a third straight berth in the substate, and a fourth substate berth in five years.
Not bad for a team that wasn’t supposed to even make it out of the district.
Yet, as the horn sounded in the third quarter, the Lady Indians found themselves on the ropes. Sunbright was up seven, the shots weren’t falling, and the folks in blue and gold who had made the drive up U.S. Hwy. 27 to crowd in behind the Lady Tigers’ bench were ecstatic as they gave their team a standing ovation. It looked like it was all on the verge of crashing down. District championships — however invigorating they may seem when they’re won — seem to lose some of their luster when teams are eliminated less than a week later, short of the regional finals. And it looked like Sunbright, which had won two of its last four trips to Oneida, was about to make it three of five.
Then came the fourth quarter, a determined bunch of Oneida seniors that refused to quit, and a remarkable turnaround that saw the Lady Indians score 14 points to surge back in front, then keep the hammer down the rest of the way.
And as one team became dejected as it watched the game slip away, the other’s celebration became more pronounced as it became obvious that they were back on the cusp of high school basketball’s biggest stage.
For every triumph there’s dejection; for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. And the first day of March Madness certainly didn’t disappoint at OHS Gymnasium Monday night.