Bradley Central and Cleveland are no longer little brothers to Hamilton County Schools in sports, in fact they haven’t been for quite some time. I’m a product of the Hamilton County School System. My parents have taught in the school system for over 30 years, and my dad coached three sports for most of that time. I was a multi-year varsity letterman for Ooltewah High School basketball. But the truth of the matter is that Cleveland and Bradley County Schools have the right formula for sustained success in athletics, and Hamilton County Schools should replicate what has been working for our neighbors. Most specifically, Bradley Central and Cleveland. Walker Valley is always competitive and very respectable, but has not quite reached the same level of winning as its cohorts.
This is not an indictment of any one player, team, coach, athletic director, or school. Over the past few years, I’ve covered local sports and have had the pleasure of working with all the local actors in our community. Heck, I played sports with or against most of them and consider these folks to be family. The men and women who coach often get to school before the sun rises, leave long after the sun sets, and usually end up driving kids home after it all. When tragedy hits a kid’s family, ole coach is the first one to step up and help.
Nobody is questioning their dedication or sports acumen, but despite being such a sports-crazy city, we have been surpassed by our neighbors up 75-North. The District 5-3A Basketball Tournament just wrapped up, and the Bradley Central girls cemented their 9th straight tournament title and have a district winning streak that would make Geno Auriemma’s eyes light up. On the boy’s side, either Bradley Central or Cleveland have won the regular season 10 out of the last 11 years.
The dominance extends beyond the hardwood, and on to the wrestling mat. Bradley Central and Cleveland have won a state championship 10 out of the last 11 seasons. Earlier this month Cleveland, Bradley Central, and Walker Valley all finished before any team from Hamilton County. It’s safe to assume that the Blue Raiders or Bears will only continue to add more hardware to their trophy room.
On the gridiron, Cleveland and Bradley Central were finally both placed in the same district as Ooltewah after redistricting two years ago. Since then, the Owls have been the only local team able to hold their own against our neighbors to the east. However, the facilities our kids have to use are not even comparable. Cleveland's field has state-of-the-art turf which is game-ready year-round. Ooltewah’s field is prone to flooding, and requires countless hours by their coaching staff and volunteers to make it playable. (A few weeks ago a proposal to make the press box at James N. Monroe Stadium safer was resoundingly panned).
In baseball it’s competitive between all the teams, and the only true advantage Hamilton County has in any of the major sports is Ooltewah softball. I don’t know the reason behind the overall disparity, but I would venture to guess that it begins at the lower levels and ends with how our sports are funded. Elementary and Middle School leagues are significantly longer and more serious compared to what we are offering through our school system.
Before the pious arguments like “school is for education, not sports” or “different sizes between school systems” begin, let me say that I believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Further research is certainly needed to give a better explanation for the difference in how the athletics departments are funded. In fact, we should even look at school systems around the state to try to replicate best practices.
I say all this not because I’m a huge Hamilton County homer, but because our kids are getting robbed of modern facilities and perhaps even reaching their full athletic potential. Do the right thing and pay the teachers, pay the coaches, invest in extracurricular activities (most notably sports) and make our school system a model for the rest of the state.
Pat Benson is a fixture at local high school sporting events. He has been a sideline reporter, P.A. announcer, and radio personality. Tweet him @Pat_Benson_Jr.