When Monica Hammond and Taylor Neuharth put their signatures on scholarship papers this week it marked the first time in the program’s storied history that five seniors from the same team signed collegiate offers.
Hammond is heading to Truett-McConnell College, while Neuharth is joining teammate Keila Formont at Bryan College. Caroline Smith and Kayla Beavers signed with Lee University last fall before the hoops season began.
The only team in Bradley County sports history to surpass the impressive feat was coach Kent Smith’s 2003-04 state semifinalist Bradley Bear squad, which had six seniors — Justin Hare (Belmont), Kellen Pickel (Lee), Cori Pugh (Lee), Chris Brown (TWC), Dominick Kienlan (TWC) and Andrew Nipper (North Greeneville) — sign, plus one other — Tim Hobbs — who took a year off before signing with TWC.
“That’s a great compliment to this group of girls,” declared current Bearette head coach Jason Reuter, who was an assistant on the 2003-04 boys team. “We’ve had a special combination on this team that helped us turn the program around. I can coach another 20 years and never have another group like this.”
This group of seniors saw the program go from just the second losing season (15-17 in 2009-10) in Bearette history their sophomore year to a 59-8 mark in Reuter’s two seasons at the helm.
“Several of these girls played significant time as freshmen and sophomores and that paid off in the long run when they got to be upperclassmen,” Reuter explained.
A 5-foot-11 post player known for hard work in the paint, Hammond was a three-year starter for the Bearettes.
Playing alongside sophomore “Twin Towers” Brooke Copeland (6-foot-1) and Rebecca Reuter (6-foot-2), Hammond’s defensive tenacity and rebounding ability were a prime example of the Bearette “team” concept for success.
“What made this team so successful the past two years isn’t one or two stars, but rather the entire team playing together as a whole,” coach Reuter expressed. “Monica is a great example of that. She knew she wasn’t going to be a big scorer for us offensively, but she also knew she could help us win in other ways that are just as important.”
Hammond shot 53 percent from the field this season, pulled down 119 rebounds (4.1 a game), dished out 40 assists, copped 32 steals and blocked a dozen shots, while playing in a rotation with Copeland and Reuter.
“She has the toughness and size to be able to play for us, plus coming from a winning program like Bradley, she is exactly what we are looking for,” commented Truett-McConnell head coach Matt Sanders, who is a former assistant coach at Lee.
“She has a lot of the intangibles you look for in a player,” Sanders added. “She gives us three posts 5-foot-11 or taller, and will be able to come in and help us right away. I’m excited about what she can do for us inside.”
“I can’t wait to go play there,” proclaimed Hammond, who was also a standout volleyball player for four years and played softball for two at Bradley. “He was the first to contact me and I really liked the campus. I felt like that was where I needed to go.”
The 1,000-student Baptist school in Cleveland, Ga., is a member of the Southern States Athletic Conference, playing in the same NAIA league as Lee.
“I’ll get to play against Kayla (Beavers) and Caroline (Smith),” Hammond remarked. “Plus the school just got their nursing program approved, so I’ll be in on the beginning of that.”
“Monica is the type of player we want — strong Christian values, great athletic ability and excels academically,” remarked Sanders of the soon-to-be honor graduate who was also recruited by Berry College and Tennessee Temple.
“I loved playing here (at Bradley). It taught me a lot. Being a part of the turnaround was a great experience,” Hammond stated. “I really appreciate the coaches here, plus Allen Smith and Phillip Wilson doing extra work with me.”
Neuharth was an All-District 5-AAA player at Walker Valley before coming to Bradley last summer. She tore her ACL before transferring and had to fight back from knee surgery before finally taking the court for the Bearettes in early December.
“I’d been playing AAU ball with many of these girls for years and wanted to play with them my senior season,” Neuharth related. “I really appreciate the way they accepted me so well. I wish I could have played more, but they always made me feel part of the team.”
Getting to play in just 15 games before injuring the surgically repaired knee, she scored 87 points, including hitting 15-of-36 3-pointers (42 percent), plus 16-of-18 free throws (89 percent). She also handed out 21 assists and made 18 steals in very limited playing time.
“The cadaver tendon from the first surgery never took, so she was basically playing on a dead knee,” coach Reuter commented. “They did a different type procedure the second time and expect her to have a full recovery.
“With her drive and determination, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ Taylor comes back,” the Bearette coach added. “She’s a diamond in the rough. I think Bryan got a steal — she shoots the ball well, is a great passer, a great person and a great student. She’s probably going to be the salutatorian this year.”
“I’ll have to red-shirt my first year because of my recent surgery, but I’m excited about getting the chance to play at Bryan with Keila (Formont),” said Neuharth, whose older sister Jordan plays at Lee. “Bryan is a small college with a Christian atmosphere that I love.”
“I had other offers that went away when I reinjured my knee but Bryan has been so nice to me and didn’t back away after I got hurt,” she related. “I’ve come back (from knee surgery) once and I’ll do it again.”
“We had no question we still wanted her even after the injury,” Lady Lion coach Jason Smith remarked. “Her determination and ability to come back has us excited about what she can do for us. Getting her and Keila (Formont) from such a successful program will really help us.”
Playing in the NAIA’s Appalachian Athletic Conference, Bryan went 14-16 in Smith’s first year with the program.
“To have five signees shows what a special group we had and is an example of what hard work and dedication can do for a program,” coach Reuter proclaimed.
The storied history of girls basketball at Bradley Central is known best for its 90-game winning streak and back-to-back mythical national championships in the mid-1970s. The Bearettes won five state titles under the national-record setting direction of legendary coach Jim Smiddy.
Smiddy led the Bearettes for 44 seasons, winning 1,217 games against 209 defeats. Additionally, coach Smiddy guided his teams to 24 district championships, 17 regional and 14 sub-state titles. He is the all-time winningest coach in Tennessee girl’s high school basketball history and an inductee of the National High School Hall of Fame and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Bearette program began in the 1917-18 school year with the team going unbeaten in more than 10 games that first season.