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Notebook: It was a great season, even if it didn’t end the way we wanted it to

A couple of weeks ago inside Highlander Gymnasium, I sat down at the scorer’s table beside LeEtta Boyatt and I said, “I’m not ready for this season to be over.”

I wasn’t then and I wasn’t tonight, when Oneida’s Lady Indians — the last local team left standing — fell to Cloudland in their substate game, officially bringing the 2020-2021 basketball season to a close.

Maybe it’s because coronavirus taught all of us to slow down and appreciate life a little more, without taking for granted what we might have once considered mundane. This global pandemic slapped us in the face with the reality that there’s no promise of routine. In sports, that means there’s no guarantee of the next game. You treat each game like a gift, and savor it a little more.

Maybe it’s because my own kids were freshmen in high school this year, and I was experiencing high school basketball as a parent for the first time, instead of merely as a journalist.

Maybe it’s because we were blessed, as a community, with some really good teams and some really great student-athletes to follow throughout this season.

Maybe, and most likely, it was a little of all three.

But, usually, by the time we get to March, I’m growing a little weary of basketball. My mind is starting to wander to 70-degree days, sunny afternoons at the ballpark, and — maybe most of all — to Friday nights off.

Tonight, though, I carried my gear into the house and packed it all away with the gloominess of a teenager who’s coming home from a weekend sleepover at a friend’s house and is cranky at the prospect of dealing with his own family again.

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This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. I fully expected to spend a few days in Murfreesboro over the next couple of weeks. I hoped to watch the Lady Indians battle it out at Murphy Center for a third consecutive year, and I fully expected to spend at least a couple of days watching the Oneida boys compete for a state championship.

But that’s how it goes in sports. It’s why they call it “March Madness.” Somewhere amid the upsets and the wild shots, legends are born and dreams are shattered. No one could’ve predicted that a CSAS team that had struggled to squeak past a Wartburg team that Oneida had beaten by 57 would turn around and upset the Indians to keep its season alive. But the Patriots did just that.

You’ll always look back at seasons that ended prematurely and wonder “what if” or “home come.”

What if an incredibly questionable charge call hadn’t been whistled in Oneida’s game at CSAS? Could the Indians have gone on to Murfreesboro? Could they have made some noise when they got there?

What if Scott High hadn’t missed two free throws with eight seconds remaining in overtime at Kingston, with victory so close at hand it could literally be tasted? Would the Highlanders have been able to make their first-ever trip to the state tournament?

What if the Lady Highlanders hadn’t somehow let Kingston get off an improbable corner shot at the buzzer in the District 4-AA consolation game to force overtime? Would the Scott girls — who, with that win, would’ve avoided a regional quarterfinal trip to North Greene — have gotten at least to the regional semifinals, with an opportunity to face Alcoa in a game with substate on the line?

Those are the sort of questions that haunt coaches throughout the offseason, just as Oneida’s Jacob King will be forever asking what if last year’s state tournament hadn’t been canceled due to coronavirus just as the Indians were peaking and playing perhaps as well as any team in the state.

Definitive answers to questions like these will never be known, which is perhaps what makes them so fun — or maddening, depending on your perspective — to ponder.

So, here we are. The gyms will go silent for the next couple of weeks — except for the players who are moving on to travel basketball for the spring — and then the process will start over again. The first shots will start going up in anticipation of summer camps, the summer workouts that will follow, and then preseason practice, when new players will have an opportunity to step up and make their mark, and new teams will pursue renewed dreams and goals.

The season might not have lasted long enough, but it can’t be said that it wasn’t fun. Rewind to October, when teams were just beginning practice, and we weren’t even sure there was going to be a season. Even as late as December, when canceled games were beginning to mount, the future was uncertain. Scott High head coach Jordan Jeffers said at one point before Christmas that he believed his team might have played its last game of the season.

There was plenty of frustration to go around this season. But, at the end of the day, everything worked out like it was supposed to. The players got to play. The cheerleaders (finally) got to cheer … a little. And, by the time it was over, most people who wanted to go to a game were able to do so, except in the cities where heavy-handedness is still viewed as the best approach to all of life’s woes.

We knew this season had a chance to be magical. We knew we had three teams in Scott County capable of getting to Murfreesboro. The fourth, Scott High’s Lady Highlanders, weren’t on anyone’s radar but everyone was anxious to see how the team fared in its reboot. We knew we had at least two players capable of competing for Mr. Basketball awards, and several other all-state-caliber players.

Oneida’s girls turned in the most dominant district campaign in at least a generation and won their third region title in five years, Scott High’s girls recorded their most district wins in a decade and beat two non-district teams that were in the substate last year, Oneida’s boys won a regular season district championship, and Scott High’s boys recorded big wins against teams like Knox Webb, Sevier County, Alcoa and Austin-East. Trey Morrow still has a chance to win Mr. Basketball after being named a finalist for the award.

And the seniors. The seniors on the Lady Indians’ squad that wrapped up their season Saturday night exit with 99 wins, tying Oneida’s 2020 seniors for the most career wins in more than 20 years. They leave having won 32 consecutive games against district or region opponents, and 42 of their last 43. The seniors on the Indians’ squad have the distinction of being among the first Oneida players to win a region championship (two of them, in fact) in more than 20 years and return to Murfreesboro after a long drought. The seniors on Scott High’s team literally put Highlander basketball back on the map, winning 41 games in their last two seasons. And the Lady Highlanders’ seniors can boast of helping the school achieve its highest regular season district finish in 25 years.

Of course, with the rare exceptions of the teams good enough to win state championships, triumphs are followed by disappointments. Oneida’s girls came up just four points shy of their third straight state tournament appearance, Scott High’s girls weren’t able to get past the region quarterfinals for the first time since the 1990s, Oneida’s boys weren’t able to avenge last year’s state tournament cancelation, Scott High’s boys lost in that excruciating semifinal game to Kingston, and Nathan Bowling was snubbed as a Mr. Basketball finalist even though he was plenty deserving.

The season wasn’t always what we’d hoped for. But it was always exciting. And, as it ends, our community’s student-athletes can move on to the next chapter with their heads held high, knowing they left it all on the floor and competed the right way.

We’re fortunate in this community because we have high-character kids, where antics on the court don’t overshadow everything else. It’s not that way in every community, and any of us who travels throughout the eastern two-thirds of the state to watch basketball games know that to be true. Our kids’ character is a credit to their coaches and it’s a credit to their parents. From the players on the court to the cheerleaders on the baselines to the students in the bleachers cheering them all on, we have generally good kids in this community. That’s a credit to their school administrators, too.

Each of this year’s senior student-athletes — Oneida’s Nathan Bowling, Kolby Morgan, Reece Marcum, Gracie Martin, Katelyn Stiltner, Jacey Manis, Caroline Bell and Emily Wisner, and Scott High’s Julia Butts, Callie Carson, Cash Tucker, Trevor McCarty, River Gray and Eli Storey — were the type of players that the young kids in our community, the ones playing on Saturdays at the Boys & Girls Club, can look up to.

This season ends without any team from Scott County in Murfreesboro as one of the final eight teams left standing in their respective classifications. Yet, the accomplishments of these teams, and the way they went about their business, has given this community plenty to be proud of.

It has been a successful season, even if none of us are ready to see it end.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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