By Steve Williams
A fourth-place finish in a district tournament would not be a momentous occasion for most high school basketball teams, but for the South-Doyle Cherokees, it’s a big step for their program.
By winning two games and finishing fourth in this season’s District 2-AAA tourney at Seymour, the Cherokees earned a berth in the Region 1-AAA tournament – and that’s further than any South-Doyle boys team has advanced on the tourney trail since 1996, according to head coach David Scott’s research.
Scott’s young squad, 9-22 and clearly a Cinderella team, was to have played Science Hill, the state’s No. 2 ranked team, in Johnson City this past Saturday night.
“It means a lot to be the first team in 17 years to get to the regional and take a big step as a program,” said guard Brody Rollins, one of four sophomore starters, following a practice session last Wednesday. “That’s what Coach talks about – taking one step at a time to get this program back where it’s supposed to be.
“Coach brought it up when we started the district tournament. He told us this team can do something that no other team has done in a long time … It inspired us to play harder and better.”
When South-Doyle students got in on it, “that motivated us as well,” said Rollins, who also played quarterback and cornerback on school’s football team that started the season 5-0 last fall.
“I’m proud of these kids,” said Coach Scott. “That’s big . . . 17 years.”
In the trophy case in the gymnasium lobby, Scott spotted a fourth-place plaque awarded to South-Doyle’s 1996 team that was coached by Eddie Hodge. He has no evidence that a Cherokee team has played in a region since then.
“Chad Smith coached here for eight years (through 2007),” said Scott. “They had good teams and good records but never could get over the hump.”
It hasn’t been easy for Scott’s Cherokees to make the next step.
After being head coach at Jefferson County for three years, Scott’s first South-Doyle team last season won only one game, in double overtime at Carter early in the 2011-12 campaign. Objectives became “establishing discipline and focus and direction for this basketball program,” said the coach. “I think that was something that was lacking.”
Even this season, the team had to back up and start over almost halfway in.
“I had high expectations . . . but for an unknown reason, the system didn’t work,” said Scott. “I think we were playing too fast and in too big of a hurry. We weren’t playing team ball. Realizing that, after the Christmas break we came in and became more fundamental.”
Set plays and set offenses were put in. More attention was put on detail. Sharing the ball more was the plan.
“I felt it was necessary at the time . . . and gave us the best opportunity to win,” said Scott.
A couple of weeks later, South-Doyle was headed to Rogersville to play Cherokee High.
“I told the team we might not win, but that doesn’t mean we were doing things the wrong way. The kids bought in. They learned the plays. They executed the plays. And they started playing as a team.
“We did not win that game. We went through a stretch of three or four games where we lost by one point. You get frustrated as a coach. Kids get frustrated. Because we’re doing all the right things. Playing hard and executing. Just not winning on the scoreboard.
“But when it came time for the tournament, we were prepared. We knew Seymour would be a battle. Some how God smiled on us and we came out on top.”
South-Doyle downed the Eagles 78-77 in double overtime, its first opening round win since 2005. Sophomore point guard Jocquez Bruce knocked down both ends of a 1-and-1 in the closing seconds, then intercepted a pass to seal it.
In the next round, South-Doyle prevailed again in double overtime and eliminated Cherokee High 52-46. Sophomore guard Cody Cummings made a 3-pointer from the corner to tie the game in regulation. The Chiefs hit a big 3 of their own at the end of the first OT. But South-Doyle pulled out the the win and punched its ticket to the region by outscoring Cherokee 6-0 in the second overtime as Cummings’ steal led to a layup and Rollins and Bruce sank four of four free throws.
“A collective effort,” pointed out Coach Scott, “allowed us to do what we did those two games.”
In addition to Bruce and 6-7 senior forward Jacob Elliott, who have been the team’s two leading scorers, Coach Scott said Rollins excelled as the defensive specialist assigned to the opponent’s top scorer. Sophomore forwards Austin Thomas, “a blue-collar type player,” and Jarquese Goines were just “outworking people.” Cummings and senior guard Tre Martin made big 3-point shots.
The roster also includes junior forward Kavon Rivers, sophomore guard Malik Lundy, junior guard David Butler, freshman point guard Malik Allen and freshman forward Dalton Wilson.
Coming off two marathon thrillers in three days, South-Doyle players may have been leg weary in the semifinals. They fell behind Sevier County by 18 at halftime but made a strong comeback, cutting the deficit to two with almost five minutes remaining, before the Smoky Bears pulled away to win 68-55. South-Doyle fell to Cocke County 41-37 in the consolation game, but the Cherokees were still region bound.
“You can be successful here and I think we’ve proven that with this district tournament,” said Scott. “We’ve taken leaps and bounds but I don’t think the process is finished. It’s an everyday journey – doing right stuff everyday and never being satisfied with where you’re at.”
As for this season, fourth place never looked so good.