Teamwork, heartpounding wins keyed Warrior march to '74 title

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   The year was 1974, the year the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign as President. Instead of peddling grilling machines, George Foreman was rocking heads as undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. Locally, Milligan College was still playing home basketball games at Bayless Gym.
   Thirty years have passed since 1974, but for some the memory of a Carter County basketball team's run to the state title seems like yesterday.
   Happy Valley, after a solid but unspectacular regular season, won three state tournament games by a combined five points to be crowned the 1974 Tennessee Class S basketball champions.
   "We beat Maury County by one point, Battleground Academy by two points and Knox Catholic by two points," said Charlie Bayless, who remains the head basketball coach at Happy Valley to this day. "We just got the breaks. We had even finished third in our own district."
   On a team filled with star players like all-stater Marty Street, all-tournament selection Teddy McKeehan, Buff Walker and Randy Curde, it was a role player who scored the biggest bucket in school history.
   Street had the ball in his hands with the state championship on the line. When the defense surrounded him, he dished off to Jeff Sisk, whose shot under the basket with three seconds left to gave HV a 44-42 win over Knox Catholic in the state title game.
   "I was very fortunate that it was me," said Sisk about his only score of the game. "That was a good play on Marty's part. They were double-teaming him and I was wide-open. It wasn't like I did anything special. I was in the right place at the right time. It was kind of hard to miss it."
   "My game was more defense and rebounding. I only scored five points all throughout the state tournament. Marty, Teddy and the rest did enough scoring."
   Street recalled: "It was an instinctive play. I went up for the shot and was double-teamed. I dumped it off to Jeff. It wasn't necessarily a play for me to get the ball to Jeff. He was open when I was double-teamed."
   The Warriors had grown accustomed to close games. In the quarterfinal matchup, Curde was the hero, hitting a game-winning layup against Maury County. The Warriors had trailed 22-14 at the end of the third quarter before coming back to win 27-26. Against Battle Ground Academy in the semifinals, Walker was Mr. Clutch sinking a pair of overtime free throws for a 41-39 HV win.
   The variety of players who constantly made the necessary plays to win separated this team from o
thers.
   "I didn't have to get that team pepped up," said Bayless. "A lot of times coaches will have to get on players and make them mad, but real good athletes will get up themselves.
   "Teddy McKeehan was a good shooter. Phil Goulds was a good playmaker and a good defensive man. We ran a 1-3-1 matchup zone and our defense carried us more than anything. All the boys played real good defense."
   Outside factors made the Warrior championship run more than just a part of school history, but truly a piece of the area's history. The game was the first high school championship game in this area to be televised, with WCYB broadcasting the event.
   On their return from Memphis where the state title was being held, the Warriors found out they weren't just the community's team anymore, but a team for all of Northeast Tennessee.
   "We came up 11E and people were lined up all the way coming into Johnson City," said Sisk. "It was really a special time, when people showed support from the whole area."
   When the team arrived on Warrior Hill, the Maroon and White celebration hit full stride.
   "The gym wouldn't hold all the people," Street remembered. "It was an overwhelming feeling to look out there and see all the people. It was like going through a parade all the way through town.
   "It was an East Tennessee championship. There were cheerleading squads from other schools that showed up. All that combined to make it huge."
   To the winners belong the spoils, but it was a different Carter County team that was expected to wear the state crown after the 1974 season.
   Hampton entered a regional championship matchup against the Warriors with a record of 33-1. Three of those 33 wins had come at the expense of Happy Valley. Large school powerhouse Dobyns-Bennett was the only team that had beaten Hampton. Earlier in the season the Bulldogs had defeated the Indians.
   The 'Dogs solidified their standing in the weeks prior to the tournament with a 72-58 rout of then No. 1 ranked Rockwood. With Hampton seemingly headed toward the state title, the Feb. 26th edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel featured a story Hampton's 1960 state championship team.
   Fresh off capturing the District 1 title over Sullivan West, the 'Dogs were the No. 1-ranked team in the state.
   The Warriors had barely survived a game with University High in the opening round of the district tournament just to qualify for the regionals. Still, they remained confident of victory. Their captain, Street, had noticed something during the team's last meeting, a 54-47 Hampton win.
   "They beat us three times, but it seemed like we got closer each time we played them," said Street. "The last time we played I saw us really close the gap."
   Led by McKeehan's 10 points, the 23-9 Warriors pulled off a stunning 40-30 upset of their cross-county rival.
   "They had a heck of a team," Sisk remembered. "It was a shame they didn't get to go to the state. To me, personally, that game was like winning the state tournament. They had been our chief foe all season. Teddy fouled out, Marty fouled out, but we hung in there. It was so rewarding."
   Street agreed that beating Hampton rivaled the state tournament games in Memphis.
   "The celebration afterwards was bigger than when we won the state," recalled Street. "We struggled in the sub-state the next game. That had a lot to do with the emotions we left on the floor after beating Hampton."
   Years later, Street has a unique appreciation of what the 1974 Warrior team accomplished. He has been a high school basketball coach for two decades now. As the coach at David Crockett, Street is yet to appear in a state title game.
   "I appreciate the fact just how hard it is to go down there," said Street. "You have to play well in the district, the region and the sub-state. You have to have a little luck. There are so many things that go into it. I have to give Coach Bayless all the credit. He instilled a lot of confidence in us."
   Those familiar with Happy Valley basketball are reluctant to call this the greatest team in school history. The school's first state championship team of 1950 had a better overall record, while HV teams in the '60s, with the likes of Danny Webster, Russell Kyte, Harold Gouge and Tom Crumley, all achieved No. 1 state rankings before being upset in the post-season.
   However, most would agree this group defined the word team as well as any Warrior squad ever to step on the hardwood.
   "The key was that every member of the team contributed," said Sisk. "We practiced hard and all worked together. When you could first start practicing, Coach Bayless had somehow wound up with a picture of the Mid-South Coliseum, where the state championship was held.
   "He held it up and said, 'If you boys work hard enough, you can win this tournament.' He didn't say another word and walked out of the dressing room. That got our attention. We would stay and practice even when he went home."
   Many have called this a team of destiny. Sisk, himself, had considered quitting basketball earlier in the season after his mother had passed away.
   "The good Lord gave me the strength to continue," said Sisk. "My family supported me and encouraged me. The only regret about the state championship is that my mother wasn't there."
   When tournament time approaches, Bayless often finds himself thinking about some of his coaching peers, who never experienced the emotions of winning a state title.
   "It was a great feeling," said Bayless. "When we came home, we went on into Elizabethton on down by the hospital and circled back around. When we got home the dad gum place was full. It was great.
   "I wish every coach could go through that. There have been so many good coaches that haven't won it because they didn't get the breaks or get in the wrong bracket. Dickie Warren, Jerry White and Bobby Snyder, they all had some teams good enough to win it. Two or three times the ball just bounced the wrong way."
   Before the 1974 season, Paul Warner, Larry Ferrell, Randy Curde, Buff Walker, Scott Teague, Rick Pope, Richard Wilson, Phil Goulds, Mike Miller, Randy Williams, Teddy McKeehan, Jeff Sisk, Tony Walker, Jeff Little, Marty Street, Mitch Campbell and Jimmy McKinney were simply names of teenage boys playing ball for Happy Valley High School. Thirty years later, they are celebrated as champions, members of the last high school state championship team from Carter County.