Most of the buzz about the District 5-AAA high school basketball tournament starting tonight at Cleveland High School surrounds top-four boys seeds Ooltewah, Cleveland, Bradley Central and Walker Valley.
Which can survive? Will any of them lift the championship trophy next Tuesday night?
However, just below the surface is two more storylines that deserve close attention.
First, can senior guard/forward Jalen Smith carry the Golden Eagles the stunning heights and dismantle the favorite roles up the top four teams?
Second, will the Bradley Central Bearettes’ remarkable achievements in three years under coach Jason Reuter finally be recognized for what they are and be given due respect?
The Owls and Bearettes, due to their No. 1 seeds, drew byes into the district semifinals and automatic berths in the Region 3-AAA tournament at Cleveland High later next week.
Of more interest in the short term are Smith’s play and the work first-year coach Mike Phillips has done to take the Eagles to a No. 5 seed and the tournament’s darkhorse role.
Phillips’ roller coaster story is worth delving into.
A personable man with an impressive knowledge of basketball, enhanced by his attending the University of Indiana, Phillips is in his 23rd year as a head coach. From 1996-2011 Phillips coached at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., where he went 250-153. Prior to that, Phillips went 84-65 as girls coach at Bloomingdale High in Valrico, Fla.
With his yet completed first season at Rhea, Phillips has a 345-232 record.
In 2011 after posting a 20-8 record and losing in the regional quarterfinals, Phillips became entangled in an internal investigation around alleged recruiting violations. On March 4, Phillips was fired and the school was fined $1,250 and placed on probation by the Florida High School Athletic Association “because of eligibility violations,” according to a story in The Tampa Tribune.
Phillips was accused of “forwarding housing information to a student-athlete that was considering enrolling in Plant’s district, specifically seeking the assistance of his sister-in-law, who is a Realtor.” Plant principal Robert Nelson interpreted Phillips’ action as a recruiting violation.
“I got fired down there,” Phillips said in a recent telephone interview. “But I was very up front with Rhea officials, (principal) Jesse Messimer and (director of Rhea County Schools) Jerry Levengood when I interviewed. I’m an honest person. I still don’t think I did anything wrong.”
After his dismissal Phillips served as an associate head coach at Braulio Alonso High in Tampa while teaching at Stewart Middle School.
The Rhea County opportunity coincided with a plan Phillips and his wife had to retire to East Tennessee.
“When I interviewed, I told them everything about my situation in Florida,” Phillips said. “I said I would give them 12 years, 15 if my health remains good, and that would take me to 62 or 65 years of age. We’re building a house on the lake in Spring City and living a dream.”
Meanwhile, Phillips is causing concern among the district tournament favorites by the play of his Eagles, who handed Ooltewah its first district loss on Jan. 18 and then knocked off Cleveland on Feb. 5, a game in which Smith scored a career-best 41 points.
“Rhea is a dangerous team,” Ooltewah coach Jesse Nayadley said shortly before the Owls’ 61-56 loss in Evensville last month.
In June, Phillips took two weeks off in Florida to introduce himself to Rhea County basketball. He didn’t have all his players at the time, didn’t even know Jalen Smith, who was vacationing in – you guessed it – Florida.
The coach returned to Tennessee in August to get down to work, but didn’t have his entire group until November due to several playing football.
It has taken most of the regular season for Phillips and his players to find each other.
Clearly, Smith and fellow senior Nick McWherter are the key cogs on a team that won five of six games down the stretch.
The 6-foot-1-inch Smith, now receiving recruiting attention from Lee University, Bryan College and Tennessee Tech, has turned in a superlative season. Heading into the tournament, Smith averages 22.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, shoots 43 percent from the floor and 76 percent from the foul line.
Smith has made 48-of-148 3-point attempts. The other 12 Eagles combined for 15 3s. A rabid fan of the TV reality show Duck Dynasty, Smith started the season with 31 points against Red Bank, one of three 30-point efforts during the season
Since Jan. 8, Smith averaged 27 points in eight games leading up to his 41-point performance against the Blue Raiders, a game in which he went 14-for-26 from the field, including 6-of-15 from 3-point distance and 7-of-8 from the stripe.
“And he’s drawing the other team’s best defender, being double-teamed some,” Phillips said. “The kid can flat-out score.”
He is arguably the best offensive player in District 5-AAA.
Smith credits Phillips with drastically improving his defense, turning the 18-year-old into a more complete player.
“I like what he’s done for me and our team,” said Smith, who is a pitcher/second baseman for Rhea’s baseball team. “I’ve enjoyed playing for him this year. I wish I’d had four years with him. Stuff he’s brought to our team has made a huge difference. We’re starting to click. We play our roles and understand what we have to do to win.”
Phillips credits Smith for buying into what he expected of his new players.
“First of all, he’s a blue-collar worker,” the coach said. “His offense was way ahead of his defense when I got here. We’ve gone through some conversations about that and I flat-out told him and everyone else that if they didn’t play defense they wouldn’t play. Jalen has responded admirably to that challenge.”
Phillips drew a Smith comparison to one of his former Plant players – Michael Frazier, now a freshman at the University of Florida. Frazier twice scored 40 points, with nine games of 33 points or more, and became the first boys player in Hillsborough County to surpass 1,000-point career mark in his sophomore season.
“Jalen shoots the ball as well as Michael,” Phillips said. “He’s our best point guard. Put him on the wing and he’s our best scoring threat. Put him on the other side and he’s our best slasher. He has it together.”
The Bearettes’ Dominating Ways
OK, let’s play word association.
The Bradley Central Bearettes?
People can’t say one without the other.
Smiddy, who once had the national high school record of 1,216 victories (he lost only 206 games) in 44 years – eight at Charleston and 36 at Bradley – and still ranks either second or third on that elite list, depending on what coach Doyle Wolverton of Leake Academy in Madden, Miss., does this season.
Under Smiddy’s guidance, Bradley won 24 district, 17 regional and 14 sub-state titles, along with five state and two national championships. He was a member of the National High School and Women’s Halls of Fame before retiring after the 1992-93 season. One of his players, Jane Brock Murphy, scored 93 points in a 114-38 rout of Cleveland High in 1966.
Smiddy died of a heart attack in July 1995.
Now, the reins of Bearettes basketball belong to Jason Reuter, whose own physical stature is as large as the team’s imposing shadow over Southeast Tennessee girls basketball is long.
In his third season, Reuter has an 82-10 record and the Bearettes are overwhelming favorites to add district and regional titles and a few more victories before running into stiff competition in sectional matchups.
Six losses came in Reuter’s first season when the Bearettes went 27-6, including two to district rival Walker Valley. However, since losing to Walker Valley on Jan. 18, the Bearettes have won 37 consecutive games against district opponents, including revenge win over Walker Valley in the 2010-11 region tourney.
Bradley lost to Girls Preparatory School and Lawrence County last season, finishing 32-2. This week the Bearettes go into the district tournament with a 23-2 mark.
However, Reuter is not without concerns as the postseason begins.
“We have definitely not been winning by the margins we’re used to,” he said. “Some (opponents) have gained ground on us, but we’re still winning. Al Davis (Oakland Raiders owner) once said, ‘Just win, baby.’ I don’t care if we win every game by one point from this point on, I’ll take it. But we have to avoid situations like we had in our last game at Walker Valley.”
In that one, Bradley fell behind and had to rally late to post 58-53 on the Lady Mustangs’ home court after beating them by 20 at Jim Smiddy Arena.
“Walker Valley got the lead and shortened the game by taking time off the clock before shooting,” Reuter said. “We had been in that situation one time this year over at Spartanburg (S.C.) against Millbrook, the unbeaten Class 4A state champion in North Carolina.
“We were down 10 at halftime and Millbrook came out in their first possession and work the ball for 2 minutes, 20 seconds before shooting. If teams hit a few shots early and pull it out on you, a 32-minute basketball game can be over pretty quickly.”
The Bearettes’ power game, led by juniors Brooke Copeland (6-1) and Rebecca Reuter (6-2), the coach’s daughter, gives opposing teams the most headaches. Copeland and Reuter are averaging a combined 28 points, with Copeland at 19.
Five-foot-7-inch senior guard Kayla Withrow is the squad’s primary 3-point threat, but the perimeter group doesn’t have the length as last year’s, thus putting a crimp in the Bearettes’ ability to thwart opponents with stifling full-court pressure defense.
“Our full-court traps and pressure are not as dominating as they once were,” Reuter said. “We’re not as long out front, but we still have the two bigs back there. We can pretty well control the glass, but have a hard time forcing teams to play our tempo.”
After spending 12 years as boys coach Kent Smith’s assistant and knowing his daughter was in the eighth grade, Reuter decided to switch to assisting Brian Glasner, who strayed on to shaky ground in 2009-10 when the Bearettes suffered only the second losing season (15-17) in the program’s 98-year history.
When Glasner was dismissed after that season, school officials simply asked Reuter to move fill the vacancy and assure a smooth transition.
“It was a touchy situation,” Reuter says. “They let Bryan go and he took it pretty hard. I tried to defend him. Once they let him go, I said, ‘You all have to do this.’ I didn’t expect a long interview process. I said, ‘I don’t think there’s a question of who the head coach should be.’ I know that sounds cocky, but that’s how I looked at the whole situation.”
There was plenty of success between Smiddy and Reuter. Paul Cretton succeeded Smiddy and went 148-19 in six seasons. Then Jack Harlow coached the Bearettes for five seasons and posted a 112-66 record. Glasner, who went 120-79 at Bradley, is now the coach at Wilson Central.
After one speed bump four years ago, Reuter has the Bearettes back on top. The carrot dangling in front of them is the drive to win their first state title since 1976 when Bradley won the last of five championships under Smiddy with a second straight 36-0 record – both years ended with mythical national titles. Between 1974 and ’77, the Bearettes’ winning streak would reach 90 games. The streak was snapped by Red Bank, which was coached by Hutch Lewis at the time.
In five state title seasons, Bradley’s combined record was 164-7.
With that as a backdrop, current Bearettes embrace the high expectations of the program. Admittedly, Reuter says some young players resist the idea of playing for the Black and Gold, despite the strong relationship the program has with college coaches. Five girls signed full or partial scholarships off last year’s team.
“It’s not always going to be peaches and cream,” Reuter said. “But I’ve been blessed to have some great kids come through here. It’s about having good coaches around you and those girls in that locker room. We want to keep this thing rolling.”
District 5-AAA Tournament Schedule
At Cleveland High School
Wednesday, Feb. 13
6 p.m. – Soddy-Daisy vs. McMinn County, girls
7:30 p.m. – Soddy-Daisy vs. Cleveland, boys
Thursday, Feb. 14
6 p.m. – Ooltewah vs. Cleveland, girls
7:30 p.m. – McMinn County vs. Bradley Central, boys
Friday, Feb. 15
6 p.m. – Rhea County vs. Walker Valley, girls
7:30 p.m. – Rhea County vs. Walker Valley, boys
Saturday, Feb. 16
3 p.m. – Bradley Central vs. Walker Valley-Rhea winner, girls
4:30 p.m. – Cleveland-Ooltewah winner vs. McMinn-Soddy-Daisy winner, girls
6 p.m. – Ooltewah vs. Walker Valley-Rhea winner, boys
7:30 p.m. – Bradley-McMinn winner vs. Cleveland-Soddy-Daisy winner, boys
Monday, Feb. 18
6 p.m. – Girls consolation
7:30 – Girls championship
Tuesday, Feb. 19
6 p.m. – Boys consolation
7:30 p.m. – Boys championship
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)