Junior Bucs ascend to new heights

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY- There's been a lot of excitement about basketball on East Tennessee State's campus the last couple of weeks, but it's not just about the men's basketball team's trip to the NCAA Tournament.
   The high school on ETSU's campus has also made some waves on the basketball scene. The University High Junior Bucs finished a remarkable 31-5, but more importantly, advanced to the Class A state semifinals.
   Despite the fact UH is a small high school that gets overshadowed in Johnson City by Science Hill, the Junior Bucs' fans came in droves to watch their team's amazing run in Murfreesboro.
   It was two weeks of excitement for the Junior Bucs and head coach Tony Gordon, but they kept focusing on the prize.
   "It's not really totally sunk in," Gordon said. "It was exciting, but the team just kept trying to focus on the task ahead. We had great fan support, and that helped us. It was a tremendous atmosphere to be in. It was our best season in school history, and the team worked well together to get that done."
   The Junior Bucs defeated Cosby in the first round of the state, then fell to Greenfield in a tight contest.
   The success in the state tournament garnered the Junior Bucs some long overdue media attention. Gordon knew once the team started having success, the recognition would come.
   "The bottom line is you've got to have a successful season and win big games to get recognition" Gordon said. "We're receiving that. We've also got a solid bunch academically, and that gets overlooked. But we've enjoyed it. For me it was five years in the making. The press coverage has been nice. To get it, you've got to have that big breakout season."
   One reason for the breakout season was due to Division I prospect Brandon Bradley. Bradley, who took Northeast Tennessee Player-of-the-Year honors, averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for the Junior Bucs.
   Bradley was the focal point of most teams, but Gordon says the post player still came through for him.
   "He was the key cog in the machine," Gordon said. "Brandon got a lot of attention. No matter what was done to him, he kept calm. When you're the focus it's easy to get frustrated, but he didn't. He just went out there and did it. He is going to be a very good player at the next level."
   The rest of the team had different roles, but all came up big this season. Danny Quick, John Tillman, Matt Tillman and Gary Williams are just a few of the guys who contributed to the great year.
   "The rest of the team scored when needed," Gordon said. "They all played especially good defense. They really got at people.
   "They all worked well together. This team had good chemistry. They trusted one another, and they believed in one another. That was a large part of why we had a very good run."
   It was a run that looked like it wasn't going to happen. After starting out the season 17-0, the Junior Bucs hit a few bumps.
   Two losses to Unaka and a defeat at Cloudland put the Junior Bucs as the third seed going into the District 1-A Tournament. University High then lost to Cloudland in the District 1-A semifinals, and once again had to settle for third.
   That's when the team had to do some soul searching.
   "We were off for a week and a half going into the District Tournament," Gordon said. "We had some difficult practices. We went into the District Tournament not feeling very good about ourselves. Cloudland beat us. We played poorly, and they played well. The team was kind of falling apart. The next day we had a long team meeting."
   According to Gordon, that's when everything started going University High's way again. The Junior Bucs went on to win the Region I-AA Tournament, and then won in the substate to advance to the big dance.
   "It reunified our team," Gordon said. "It was something that really got us going. I really believe that day was the turning point.
   "When things go bad, you have doubt in your mind. But we fought through that."
   Once the Junior Bucs were the only Class A team this side of Cosby standing, other teams and coaches rallied behind UH. One coach that tried to help was Unaka's Donald Ensor.
   "He was very genuine in his support," Gordon said. "He was very helpful, and let me borrow a tape. To me Coach Ensor and I don't have a rivalry. I have the utmost respect for what he does and what his program is all about."
   Overall, Gordon is just overwhelmed when thinking about having the privilege of coaching the best University High basketball team ever.
   "It's indescribable," Gordon said. "Words can't describe the reward it gives. I've worked at this for 13 years, some of those being at other schools. But this was our moment in the sun. It was done with a team concept and everybody working together. That makes it that much more rewarding."