By Steve Williams
It’s been over 40 years, but longtime Austin-East fans haven’t forgotten the glory years of Roadrunner basketball.
The school gave Knox County its first state championship in the TSSAA’s classification era when Elston Turner led A-E to the Class AAA title in 1977.
A brick monument honoring that squad still stands in front of the school on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
The Roadrunners won two more Class AA state championships in 1985 and 1987 as their fans packed Murphy Center in Murfreesboro.
I was fortunate to get to cover all three of those state championship games in my days as prep editor at the old Knoxville Journal.
I can still hear in my mind “Who Dat? Who Dat? … Who Dat Talkin’ Bout beatin’ A-E?” booming through Murphy Center.
Dereke Upton, a captain on this season’s Austin-East team, knows about the school’s tradition in the sport and its history on the state level.
“I know we play good defense,” he said of A-E’s tradition prior to a practice session last week. “We always lock down. And I know everybody wants to get at us, so we just play as hard as we can.”
As for the school’s past success, he’s seen the pictures of great Roadrunner teams and the trophies they earned.
“Yes, out there in the hall,” said the 6-3 junior forward. “I look at them every day. They are motivation.”
Now Upton and his teammates are trying to make their mark. They were ranked No. 2 in the state in Class AA in The Associated Press poll going into Friday’s District 4-AA game against Kingston and Saturday’s trip to highly regarded Chattanooga Brainerd.
Because of recent inclement weather, it would be A-E’s first action since playing Halls on Jan. 11.
“We’re trying to make it to the state championship game and win it,” added Upton, who also pointed out one of two places on the court where “Clifford H. Ross Gymnasium” is inscribed on the hardwood.
Coach Ross led the Roadrunners to that 1977 Class AAA title and his teams were known for their defense.
Marcus Stanton, who is in his fifth season as head coach, knows 2008 was the last time Austin-East made it to the state.
“When I came in everything was making the state tournament,” he said. “They’ve always been a part of the state tournament.”
Stanton said a significant drop in the school’s enrollment in recent years had hindered the Roadrunners’ success in athletics, but things were looking up again.
Jaiohn Foster, a left-handed 5-11 junior shooting guard, is one connection to the Roadrunners’ past glory as he is a grandson of former A-E head coach John Foster, who also was a longtime assistant to Coach Ross.
“Jaiohn is becoming a great player,” said Stanton. “He went through a stage when he was trying to find himself and was taking crazy shots, but he’s playing more relaxed now. As he’s improved, the whole team has improved. And they like him so much, they want him to do well.”
There are three home games remaining on the regular season schedule A-E fans may want to circle on their calendar – Brainerd on Feb. 10, a make-up game against Alcoa Feb. 12 and the home finale against Bearden, the state’s top-ranked Class AAA team, on Feb. 13.
Then the Roadrunners will turn their attention to getting through the district and region tournaments and back to the state once again.