From 1987 to 1995 – nine seasons – the state of Tennessee produced only one state champion each year in boys high school soccer. Since then, schools playing the sport have been broken into classifications, and there are now multiple state champions. And public and private schools have been divided from each other in tournament play, producing still more annual state champions. Before then, starting in 1973, high school soccer in Tennessee had two conferences that produced champions in the Fall and different champions in the Spring. And before that, only a handful of Tennessee schools played the sport. Any state soccer champion before 1973 was purely mythical.
The 1988 Hixson High School boys soccer team won the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association state championship in Brentwood on March 14. That championship won almost 30 years ago is the only indisputable boys state soccer championship won by a Chattanooga school and will certainly go down in history that way.
The Wildcats’ state title was the culmination of nine years of determined work by a multitude of athletes, students, coaches, parents, supporters, fans and administrators. It was a relatively fast climb to the top of the mountain for the program, founded in 1979, but it was far from easy.
Hixson was fortunate that Mr. Bob Martin chose to lead the soccer movement at the school. Mr. Martin, who passed away in 2016, was an ex-Navy pilot who gave 100 percent to any project he tackled, according to his son, Bruce, a player on the ’88 championship team.
“He was the leader of a group of parents who formed a booster club and lobbied the administration to start a team,” said Bruce.
While previously living in Texas, Mr. Martin and his wife, Reni, looked for a sport that the entire family could get involved in, and they immersed themselves in soccer. All three of their sons – including Eric and Blake – played soccer for Hixson.
After serving in the Navy, Mr. Martin became a pilot for Delta Air Lines, retiring in 1997. The Martin family moved to Chattanooga in 1976 from the Dallas area when Bob was reassigned to Delta's Atlanta hub. The Martins settled in Chattanooga because, according to Bruce, “He just didn’t want to live in Atlanta.”
“Back then, he could just hop a Delta flight to Atlanta to fly his route if it didn’t originate in Chattanooga,” Bruce said.
Mr. Martin was not the only Atlanta-based Delta pilot to make Chattanooga home. Sonny Ideker, a retired Delta pilot living in Atlanta, says several Delta pilots chose to live in the Scenic City.
Many Hixson High students from the early ‘80s can recall seeing the solitary figure of Bob Martin working on the school soccer field, which he essentially built and maintained by himself on a plot of land that used to be a gravel parking lot. Besides working on the field, he was able to procure the necessary materials – light poles, sod, concrete, goals, bleachers – to complete the Hixson soccer facility. Bruce Martin said that all items were “donated or drastically discounted,” thanks to the efforts of Bob Martin.
“My dad probably spent more time at the school than I did because he personally took responsibility for watering, mowing and striping the field for all games,” said Bruce. “Many days I would come out for practice after school and he would be napping in his truck with our dog, tired from working countless hours on the field.”
In addition to his work for the Hixson soccer program, Mr. Martin, in order to grow the sport of soccer in the area, lobbied the administrations of other local high schools to start soccer programs of their own, going as far as buying uniforms for those schools.
Perhaps the most difficult task Mr. Martin assumed was convincing the TSSAA to sanction the sport of soccer in the state. He made many trips to the TSSAA headquarters in Hermitage trying to sell the TSSAA administrators and Board of Control on the idea and came home empty-handed for years.
Meanwhile, boys high school soccer teams in the state were left to compete in two disjointed associations that produced no true state champion. The associations were known as the Volunteer Conference (for schools choosing to play soccer in the Spring) and the Dixie Conference (for Fall competition). The Volunteer Conference consisted largely of Chattanooga and Nashville schools (powerful Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett being a notable exception), while the Dixie Conference was made up mainly of Memphis and Knoxville teams. Both conferences and their respective state tournaments were organized by the Tennessee Secondary Soccer Coaches Association. This organization also sponsored the “Lady Tennessee Conference” for girls soccer.
Interestingly, Hixson forward Steve Meller, one of three captains of the state championship team (along with John Hepler and Andy Robinson), played in both conferences. Meller participated in the Dixie Conference as a sophomore reserve at Oak Ridge High School in the Fall before transferring to Hixson and playing in the Volunteer Conference in the Spring.
Finally, in 1987, soccer became an official TSSAA sport, with much credit to Mr. Martin, uniting all of the schools in Tennessee into one state tournament.
The Hixson High soccer program was practically an instant success on the field after its inception, reaching the Volunteer Conference final four in 1983 and the final eight in ‘85. But the Wildcats were unable to nail down the gold trophy.
When the Middle Valley Youth Association began its soccer program, Hixson High had a natural feeder system that provided playing experience, and the Wildcat program began to thrive even more. Players from Middle Valley represented the core of the Hixson soccer program.
In 1985, Pepe Fernandez arrived at Hixson High to coach the soccer program. Fernandez hailed from Franklin, Tenn., and played soccer at Father Ryan High School in Nashville and at Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tn., graduating in ‘85. Coach Fernandez comes from a soccer family. His father led the growth of the sport in Williamson County and in the mid-state. In Pepe Fernandez, who today is entering his 30th season as head coach at Maryville College, Hixson had the man they needed to make a run at a state championship. Hixson was fortunate to have Coach Fernandez, and he was fortunate to coach the Wildcats.
“At Hixson, I was very fortunate to coach one of the most talented group of high school players ever in Tennessee,” Coach Fernandez said recently. “We had about 70 players on the teams. We had a freshmen group, a junior varsity team, and varsity.”
Meller commented, “We were fortunate to have Pepe. He taught us how to get in shape physically, challenged our mental game, and taught us skills and tactics that carried us through the championship season.”
In his first season, 1986, Coach Fernandez had a great team and led the Wildcats to the championship game in the final year of the Volunteer Conference, finishing runner-up to Hendersonville, 5-3. The championship was played at Brentwood High School, which also hosted the inaugural TSSAA tournament the next year and years after that. The talented Wildcats featured seniors Jeff Hunneke and Bill Elliott, now coach of the Chattanooga Football Club and the University of West Florida.
“Bill was a great player, very quick and good ball skills,” said Meller.
Hixson returned a powerful team for the 1987 season and was the pre-season favorite by many to win the first-ever TSSAA-sanctioned state soccer championship. The Wildcats blitzed through the regular season schedule and were undefeated (16-0) before falling to McCallie, 1-0, in the region championship game despite having defeated the Blue Tornado a week earlier. It was a difficult loss for the team to swallow. To make matters worse, Coach Fernandez accepted a job at Notre Dame High School coaching the boys and girls soccer teams at the conclusion of the school year.
“Losing Pepe was rough,” Meller said.
Despite that setback, the Wildcats entered the 1988 season as overwhelming favorites to win the state championship. Hixson returned an array of talented players, led by prep All-American midfielder Jon Beevers, who was named Tennessee’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
“He was fast, big, and had great ball skills,” Meller said of Beevers. “He controlled the front middle and had a very hard and fast strike on the ball. It was a very balanced team, but Jon was a cut above the rest.”
A chemistry teacher from Michigan named Tom Moyer, who had never coached soccer, was chosen by Hixson to replace the departed Pepe Fernandez.
“Moyer was hired to teach chemistry at the school with the understanding that he would coach soccer,” said Martin. “But the captains really did most of the coaching of the team.”
“Tom did his best, but he didn’t have the experience,” Meller said. “I’m sure practices were an adventure for Coach Moyer.”
“Coach Moyer was a chemistry teacher that agreed to coach the team after Pepe left,” said Bob Elliott, a forward on the championship team and brother of Bill. “It was his first-ever year to coach anything as I recall. He was a very nice man and served as a chaperone for the team, but as I recall it, we were essentially self-coached.”
Regardless, the 1988 Wildcats were good – and they knew it.
“We were supremely confident,” Elliott said. “We never stepped on the field thinking we’d lose.”
“We were arrogant and full of confidence,” Meller recalls. “But when it came game time, we followed a disciplined warmup routine that included a silent walk onto the field across midfield in a single file line to drop our bags. It set the tone for the game and sent notice to the opposition.”
Hixson opened the championship season in Nashville with a tough 5-3 win over Nashville’s Overton High, who would later appear in the opposite bracket from Hixson in the state final four. Beevers tallied a hat trick for the Wildcats with three goals, with Jason Varner and Swedish exchange student Johan Skogsberg scoring one goal each.
The Wildcats demolished their next four opponents by a combined score of 36-1 before appearing in the Oak Ridge Invitational, held at historic Blankenship Field in Oak Ridge. Hixson and Nashville’s powerful Father Ryan Purple Irish battled in a game that ended in a tie in regulation time and went into the record books officially as a tie per TSSAA rules. Regular season games do not go into overtime in the TSSAA, but because this was a tournament there had to be a winner. Hixson eked out a spectacular 5-4 win in 3 overtimes (two overtime periods and one sudden death period). Skogsberg’s rocket strike ended the game in sudden death.
Hixson met Oak Ridge in the championship game of the Invitational, suffering their only loss of the season, 2-0. Hixson had a valid excuse for the defeat, however. It was prom night, and Hixson sent essentially a junior varsity team onto the field. The Oak Ridge players knew this and became frustrated that they could not blow out the Hixson team that was not at full strength.
Before playing its last regular season game, Hixson beat its next six foes by a combined 43-7. Baylor and Notre Dame played the Wildcats good games, each losing by a goal.
Chattanooga Christian was Hixson’s final regular season opponent. The game ended in a 0-0 tie at CCS’s field. But unlike the Oak Ridge loss, Hixson players offered no excuse. Considering that the Oak Ridge game was on prom night and that the Father Ryan game was technically a win for Hixson, the result against the Chargers was the only blemish on the season for Hixson.
“No excuses,” said Bruce. “They played really well.”
Meller agreed, saying, “CCS was extremely frustrating. Just one of those games where we couldn’t get it in the net.”
Hixson opened up its post season in the region tournament with a win at home over Boyd-Buchanan, 6-2. The region tournament moved to Girls Preparatory School’s beautiful field for the semifinals and championship games. With the stinging loss to McCallie from the year before still very fresh on their minds, Hixson exacted revenge in the semis with a 4-1 thumping of the Blue Tornado. In the region championship game against Baylor, Hixson defeated the Red Raiders again, this time by a solid 3-1 margin. Hixson played the game without Meller, who suffered a knee sprain in the McCallie game.
Murfreesboro Riverdale was Hixson’s opponent in the state quarterfinals, which were played at school sites, in this case at the Murfreesboro Soccer Complex. The Wildcats pulled out a very hard-fought win, 2-0, in overtime. Hixson had to play the game without Beevers, who was serving a one-game school-imposed suspension. Plus, star Wildcat sweeper Hepler was red carded to start the second half. In addition, Hixson had to play the overtime without starters Tim Cloud and Jason Varner, who were injured in regulation. Add to all of that, one of the star players for the Warriors was Brent Mason, who had transferred from Hixson and had learned the game at Middle Valley. Meller added, “I also remember the refs may not have been impressed with our arrogance.” Against these odds, Meller scored two goals for Hixson in the overtime after coming back from a knee sprain. Kevin Lusk, John Barber, Todd Harding, and Dennis Blaschke stepped up to help fill the void of Hepler. Andy Harvey had nine saves in goal for the Wildcats.
“That was a tough one,” Meller said.
The state tournament moved to Brentwood High School for the semifinals and championship game. In the semifinals, Hixson faced Oak Ridge again in a battle of Wildcats. Oak Ridge was on a tear, having shut out its previous eight opponents. Unlike the first matchup between the two teams, Hixson fielded its full varsity team, minus Hepler who was out due to the red card in the Riverdale game. Meller, the Oak Ridge transfer, recalls feeling extra pressure in having to face his old school. Hixson eliminated Oak Ridge, 2-1, to advance to the state championship game. Harvey had 11 saves for Hixson. Hixson’s goals were from Meller, on an assist from Lusk, and Jeff Dean. After the game, Hepler, who had to watch the game from the sideline because of the red card, said in the Chattanooga News-Free Press, “No one is going to stop us now.”
Hixson entered the state title game against Memphis White Station High School minus the team’s spiritual leader, Barber, according to Meller. Barber was injured in the Oak Ridge game. The Spartans were undefeated and had shut out 12 opponents during the season. The stage was set for a classic state championship game.
Hixson’s Elliott scored the first goal of the match with 3:06 left in the first half.
“My favorite memory is from the championship game,” Elliott said. “I was famous for shanking shots. Steve Meller made an incredible hustle play in front of White Station’s goal. The goalie came out and collided with Steve and the ball squirts out right in front of the goal, dead center, no keeper and I’m trailing the play.”
“Steve was still on the ground and looked up to see me charging,” he continued. “He cringed as I struck the ball. All he was thinking was, ‘Please don’t shank it, Elliott.’ But I did. I shanked it right into the inside side of the net for our first goal and 1-0 lead. The last thing I remember after seeing the ball hit the net was being buried alive by a pile of my celebrating teammates. Steve and I still laugh about that play to this day. It was just lucky for me and our team that I was only about 5 yards from the goal when I hit it or it would have missed and then who knows what would have happened.”
Meller remembers the play well. “As I like to tease him, he hit the side net from a wide-open goal that I gift wrapped to him.”
White Station’s Chris Bowers scored the game’s second goal with only 26 seconds remaining in the first half, sending the teams deadlocked, 1-1, into halftime. Bruce Martin responded for Hixson with a goal 11 minutes into the second half. White Station answered with Bowers’ second goal eight minutes later. Fourteen tense minutes trickled by before Hixson’s Jon Beevers scored what would wind up being the game-winning goal, his 30th of the season, with 7:25 left in the game, a 15-yard blast into the left corner.
“It was only fitting that Beevers scored the winning goal in his final game,” Elliott said. “He was our best player.”
Skogsberg was voted MVP of the state tournament for his solid play on the left wing. He was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Beevers and Hepler.
After the championship game, Hixson coach Moyer told the News-Free Press, “They certainly saved their best for last today. They pulled through all the problems with the red cards and injuries, and, today, they proved they are the best team in the state.”
“A lot of things happened throughout the course of the season, but we’ve been eyeing the state championship since Day 1,” Beevers said in the Tennessean. “We thought we might win the title last year and that loss in the regions really hurt. But I really believe losing that game gave us more determination than anything else could have.”
A good number of players from the championship team went on to play either varsity or club level soccer in college, including Beevers at Old Dominion, Martin at Memphis, Dean and Hepler at UNC-Asheville, Vance Grant at Maryville, and Elliott at Tennessee (where Bill Elliott also played).
All of the players remember their teammates and the championship season with affection.
“We were all very good friends on and off the field,” said Meller.
Elliott said, “We were close on and off the field. It was a brotherhood. I would know any of them today if I saw them on the street.”
Both Martin and Meller made it a point to mention the generous coverage the team received from the old Chattanooga News-Free Press, whose coverage of local prep sports was famous.
“Ron Bush and Greg Thompson – great guys – covered us well,” Martin said. “It’s not like that anymore. Today you’ll see the schedules in the paper and then nothing about the games the next day. Back then, there was a story about every game.”
“They were very good to us,” Meller said. “Greg Thompson followed us consistently and wrote several stories about our team.”
Hixson High School christened the school’s soccer facility “Bob Martin Field” the year after the championship season. Bruce Martin said that after the field naming ceremony, Mr. Martin joked to his wife, “Now that the field has my name on it, it will be harder to get people to help me work on it!”
Pepe Fernandez, whose coaching wisdom was no doubt still with the Wildcats in their championship run, summed up his feelings on his time with the Hixson program and players.
“The players were well known as great students, great athletes and they were a lot of fun to be around,” Fernandez said. “The community and parent support were as good as any high school program I have seen. I feel really fortunate to have been a part of it.”
1988 Hixson High School Soccer Schedule and Results
Date Opponent Score Site
March 5 Tyner (Jamboree) 6-0 Notre Dame
March 11 Nashville Overton 5-3 Overton
March 12 Murfreesboro Oakland 2-0 Hixson
March 15 Tyner 11-0 Hixson
March 18 Brainerd Baptist 13-1 Hixson
March 22 Soddy-Daisy 10-0 Hixson
Oak Ridge Invitational
March 25 Nashville Father Ryan 5-4 (3 OT) Oak Ridge
March 26 Oak Ridge 0-2 Oak Ridge
April 12 East Ridge 12-0 Hixson
April 15 Baylor 3-2 Baylor
April 16 Red Bank 5-1 Hixson
April 19 Ooltewah 11-2 Standifer Gap Park
April 23 Notre Dame 3-2 Notre Dame
April 26 Cleveland 9-0 Hixson
April 29 Chattanooga Christian 0-0 Chattanooga Christian
May 2 Boyd-Buchanan (Quarterfinals) 6-2 Hixson
May 4 McCallie (Semifinals) 4-1 Girls Preparatory School
May 6 Baylor (Championship) 3-1 Girls Preparatory School
May 10 Murfreesboro Riverdale (Quarterfinals) 2-0 (OT) Murfreesboro Soccer Complex
May 13 Oak Ridge (Semifinals) 2-1 Brentwood High School
May 14 Memphis White Station (Championship) 3-2 Brentwood High School
(Bill Peterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)