By Steve Williams
Nashville Whites Creek head coach Carlton Battle said he knew his team would make the tying shot in the closing seconds of its semifinal game against Knoxville Catholic because the Cobras’ season was on the line.
He also said he knew Luke Smith’s last shot was going in.
“I wanted to press them after our tying shot, because I knew how special Smith is,” said Battle in the media interview room after Catholic’s 56-53 Class AA semifinal win. “When he jumped and let it go, I knew it was good, just because special players make special plays like that.
“I’ve been going to state tournaments all my life and special plays like that are made. When we didn’t get a good contest on that I figured it was going in. I was probably already halfway out to the scorer’s table.”
Battle was extremely gracious in defeat, a trait not always seen in athletics but one that sets a great example for young people as they listen and learn how to lose with class.
“No doubt Catholic lived up to their billing,” continued Coach Battle with two of his players sitting beside him, including the 6-9 Ruot Monyyong, who Irishman Brock Jancek said was the best big man he had played against all season.
“We saw Catholic on film, so we knew how tough they were, how sound they were. We knew that those guys play with a lot of confidence. They have no quit in them. Whoever their opponent is (in state finals), they’ll have their hands full.
“Those kids have been playing hard every year. Usually it’s hard to have a team that’s won that many games in a row and they continue to play that way against this kind of competition. But everything I heard about them was true. Those guys are legit.”
Later on Semifinal Day at the state tourney, which I’ve always said was the day to go to state, if you had to pick just one, Grace Christian Academy sophomores C.J. Gettelfinger and Grant Ledford were saddened by a tough loss to Clay County but upbeat when the topic turned to the 2017-18 campaign.
“I think next year will be very bright because if you look out there, every single team here really has mainly seniors leading them,” said Gettelfinger.
The Rams will miss 6-7 senior standout Connor Arnold next season but will have four starters coming back. Gettelfinger and Ledford also started as freshmen last season.
“I think we’ll just have so much more experience over a lot of teams,” said C.J. “I think the confidence will be a lot higher than everybody and the determination to get back and win it all.”
Ledford added: “You learn a lot playing here at state. Once when we get back in the gym together, we’ll learn from our mistakes.
“Losing twice here (GCA lost to Van Buren County in quarterfinals last season) makes you want it even more.”
Grace Christian Coach Mike Doig said “these two (C.J. and Grant) are committed to the game. They love it. They’re gym rats. They’re always there. Another sophomore Jordan Crawley is pretty good too and he’s right there behind them.”
GCA also will have 6-8 center Baylor Younker returning for his senior season.
Coach Doig noted his team beat Clay County two years ago on a last-second shot.
“They got even,” chuckled Doig. “We have a good relationship with that program.”
Doig pointed to free throws and offensive rebounds as the two key factors in the loss. Clay County made 20 of 28 free throws to GCA’s 10 of 15. The Bulldogs also had more offensive rebounds (14 to 4).
This year’s third straight trip to state for Grace Christian started with a win over No. 1 ranked Humboldt in the quarterfinals. That had some folks thinking maybe a fifth meeting between GCA and Harriman could be coming in the finals. The Blue Devils from Roane County did make it with a semifinal win over Columbia Academy.
“It’s been a pretty good experience for these guys,” said Doig. “And these boys are not going to stop (knocking on the door). Even tonight they kept going to the very end.”