Twenty years ago, Tigers went to the top

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com

   With all the clamor about Unaka's state title, there are many who are experiencing a feeling of deja vu from a similar championship 20 years ago.
   The same trip to Murfreesboro, the same tingling feeling of excitement, the same feeling of pride upon returning to the community was felt by the 1984 Hunter Elementary basketball team after beating three undefeated teams in three days for the AA junior high state championship.
   Richard Thomas, one of the '84 team champs, currently teaches and serves as assistant basketball coach at Unaka High School. "It brought back some memories with what we went through last week," he said after Unaka had won the state championship.
   "Some of the coaches and I talked about how much it had changed," Thomas said. "The place we stayed at was right above where we stayed in '84. There were big open fields and not much traffic on the highway then. Now you can hardly see across the highway for the traffic."
   The Hunter team finished the season with a 29-3 record and was chosen to compete in Murfreesboro midway through their regular season for the state tournament. The Tigers held a 23-3 record at the time of their invitation, and although they were a single A school, they competed in the double A bracket.
   "It was an exciting time," Thomas recalled. "It was really intense getting our first look at the championship. There were some fans there. We played it in the middle of the season. We played our county tournament after we had already won state."
   The road to the state tournament was paved a little differently in those days. A longtime tradition, Tennessee was divided into eight sections and the team with the best record was chosen from each section to compete for the state title at Middle Tennessee Christian School.
   Hunter was no stranger to playing the big games. The year before, the Tigers placed fourth in the state and finished first in their league with a 25-6 record, also taking both the county and regional championships. However, the whiff of victory didn't fill the junior high players' heads with false hopes.
   After winning only one game at state in 1983, Coach Tony Hardin knew the trip would most likely be challenging. "We had done well in the league, but we didn't go there thinking we were going to win," Hardin said. "We went down there just thinking it would be a great trip."
   A great trip it was. Hunter overcame three undefeated teams to claim the state trophy, winning the championship game by six points. Team captains Chris Boyd and Russell Harrison led Hunter to blow away their first opponent with a 51-42 victory. Boyd scored 19 and Harrison put down 18 points against Clarksville Academy, a school with a 16-0 record.
   It also wouldn't be the last time the group of basketball players would compete at the state level. Thomas told of how he and the same group of guys made it again the next year when he was a varsity player his freshman year in '85.
   "We made it again my senior year ('88) when Donald Ensor was a senior," Thomas said. Aside from this year's trip with the Rangers, Thomas also went two years ago as an assistant coach.
   "Donald and I share something that not many people know about," said Thomas. "Every time Unaka has gone to state or the sub-state, we're the only two people that have been there every time in some form or fashion."
   A team made up of mostly small players, the Tigers weren't exactly the type of players that sparked fear in the eyes of their opponents, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in heart and unity.
   "Russell Harrison and Chris Boyd were about six feet tall. The rest were small," Hardin said. "The biggest thing was the chemistry. There was no jealousy. They just played hard and didn't care who scored. Everybody got along really well."
   Other team members included point guard Eric Eggers, twin players John and Jeff Cyphers, Thomas, Brad Smith, Travis Gass, Matthew Russell, Richard Wilson, Mike Carr and Ricky Norris.
   "Basically, we weren't afraid," Hardin said. "It went really well from the get-go. The guys were extremely close and the trip just made them closer. Probably the key to winning three games in three days was the great relationship between the players and the fact that they were not afraid of any team."
   "There was a lot of chemistry," said John Cyphers. "We enjoyed each other and didn't have any superstars.
   Hunter faced Clarksville Jr. High (18-0) for the semifinal game, and won it by a one point margin. The much taller team outrebounded the Tigers, but Hardin's team used good shooting and speed to take the 44-43 victory. Boyd led the Tigers with 22 points as Harrison added 18, including the basket with five seconds left that won the game.
   Cyphers shared a memory of after one of the games that he will never forget. "One of the fathers of a guy from one of the teams we played said to us, 'the reason you guys won was because you weren't intimidated.' That team was used to people being intimidated of them. We didn't back down and I think they were surprised."
   The championship game was against East Robertson. Hunter used trapping, led by Eggers, to cause crucial turnovers and keep the ball from getting inside to Robertson's tall center. Boyd posted a 21-point effort in the 43-37 win.
   "East Robertson was a traditional power," Hardin said. "They sent players from the junior high to the high school by the same name and on to the University of Tennessee almost regularly at that time."
   Although the team returned at one in the morning, Hardin said a police escort was waiting to chauffeur the state champions through town. Showered in community support and congratulations, the team received a plaque with their names emblazoned on it and a trophy that still adorns the trophy case at Hunter Elementary. They were issued an official congratulations from Senator Robert Burleson, commemorating them for winning the league, county, and state tournaments.
   Hardin, who left the year after Hunter's state title to coach at Elizabethton, is still grateful to retired Hunter principal Harley Carden, who supported the team every step of the way. "Without his support, we could have never made the tournament," Hardin said. "Also, the boosters club at that time was very helpful with all the arrangements and necessary funding for the trip.
   "It was a really neat experience," Hardin added. He still sees several of his players from time to time.
   "If I see those guys now, we still talk about how exciting it was and what an experience it was," he said.
   "We split up and went our separate ways," Thomas said. "A couple of us came to Unaka, but the bulk went to Elizabethton. I miss those guys - we were really good friends. I went to a couple of their games. I went and supported them in high school, and they came and supported me. Memories are always good."