When the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association made its four-year district shuffles last fall, the local large-school league, which includes Bradley Central, Cleveland and Walker Valley, saw Rhea County fly westward, while East Hamilton is ready to step up with the “big boys.”
After being an extremely tough program for many decades, the Eagles from Evensville haven’t been in the hunt for a 5-AAA title in the last five years or more, while Hamilton County’s newest high school has been blowing away the Chattanooga area Class AA competition in the majority of sports the last few years.
“I hated to see Rhea County leave, but I’m excited to have East Hamilton joining the district,” commented Bradley Central athletic director Turner Jackson.
“We’ve thought for a couple of years that they’d (EH) be coming in, but we thought Rhea would still be here so we’d have an eight-team district. They’re an up-and-coming school that is only going to get bigger. Athletically they’ve really come on strong in AA. I expect them to be very competitive in all their sports.”
Rhea County is now in District 6-AAA along with Cookeville, Stone Memorial, Cumberland County, White County and Warren County. Districts 5 and 6 compete against each other on the Region 3-AAA level of TSSAA post-season play.
Opening just four years ago, East Hamilton has had state tournament team or individual qualifiers in 11 of its 15 sports, with three of the others having advanced to state sectional games (one win shy of qualifying for state tournament).
In fact the only sport to yet have any post-season success is the boys’ basketball program, which has been competing in the extremely tough District 6-AA with the likes of state powers Brainerd, Howard, Tyner and Chattanooga Central.
Coach Michael Stone’s Hurricanes took their lumps the first three years going 8-37 in district play (20-55 overall), but blew up a storm this past season going 17-10 overall and 9-5 in regular season league play, but once again saw their campaign end with an opening round loss in the district tournament.
With the impressive new campus at 2015 Ooltewah-Ringgold Road in the Collegedale area, EH already has several ties to 5-AAA, having played many of the league teams in non-district competition in a variety of sports the past four years.
With the majority of its student body coming out of Ooltewah High School, as well as some former Owl coaches, the school is led by principal Gail Chuy, a former Bradley County educator. Chuy’s husband John was an assistant football coach at Bradley Central for many years, including when the Bears won the 1976 state championship.
Although the TSSAA allows golf matches to begin this week, the first official East Hamilton District 5-AAA competition won’t come until Aug. 6, when its golf teams come to the Cleveland Country Club to face Cleveland High’s link squads.
The ’Canes lost just one starter off last year’s boys squad that won their district and region titles before placing fifth at the Class AA state tournament.
The other four fall sports won’t start official play until after Aug. 19.
The volleyball Lady ’Canes, which have played in the last two TSSAA state tournaments, will get a tough test right off the bat, facing state sectional participant Bradley Central in Jim Smiddy Arena Aug. 20.
Going 90-51 the past three seasons, EH has won the 6-AA volleyball district and Region 3-AA titles each of those years, while making the state field the last two, including a Final 4 finish last fall.
In the most anticipated impact of the new alignment, the football ’Canes are coming off two straight district championships, plus a run to the Class 4A state quarterfinals last fall.
After a 9-1 regular season that included a victory over Bradley and a last-second 31-28 loss to Ooltewah, Coach Ted Gatewood’s squad was on track for a serious challenge for a state crown, but their hopes were derailed when star running back Logan Jackson (1,643 rushing yards and 25 TDs) felt his left knee pop after having already gained nearly 100 yards and scored twice in his first eight carries in a 35-14 second round playoff victory over Page.
Even without the all-state runner, EH gave unbeaten Giles County all it could handle in a 22-16 contest the following week. This year’s team features the school’s first SEC commitment as defensive back Tre Herndon announced last week that he is heading to play for Vanderbilt.
East Hamilton, which is 1-3 against 5-AAA opponents having lost to the Owls and Bears in 2011, will open their 2013 gridiron season at rival Signal Mountain on Aug. 23 and play host to Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett Aug. 30 before traveling to the north end of Bradley County to face Walker Valley on Sept. 6 for its inaugural 5-AAA battle.
The ’Canes will play host to Cleveland on Oct. 4 and close the regular season with a visit from the Bears Nov. 1, in a game that could very well have playoff and district title implications.
With an enrollment of 1,107 last fall, EH is the smallest of the 5-AAA schools and will compete for a spot in the Class 5A football playoffs along with Cleveland (1,357), Ooltewah (1,404) and Soddy-Daisy (1,341).
Bradley (1,664), Walker Valley (1,565) and McMinn County (1,472) are Class 6A when it comes to post-season football play.
East Hamilton should also be in contention for the 5-AAA girls’ soccer crown after three straight district, plus a pair of region titles and sectional games, on the AA level.
The Lady ’Canes went 16-4-1 in 2012, losing to eventual state semifinalists Chattanooga Christian 1-0 in last year’s substate match. Two of their losses last season came to Cleveland and McMinn County.
Despite the graduation of the school’s lone state champion, Nick McCormick (2011 state title and seventh last season), the Green-and-Black cross country runners will also be in the chase. EH returns three runners from last year’s team that finished 19th at the state race, plus one girl who ran as an individual in Nashville.
As the winter approaches, the EH basketball and wrestling squads will get welcomed to the state’s largest division.
The Lady ’Canes have won 23-plus games three straight years, claiming the 6-AA title in each, plus advancing to the TSSAA sectional playoffs after falling to perineal powerhouse McMinn Central in the each of those region finals.
Both EH hoops squads dropped solo games to Walker Valley and Cleveland last season, but have the advantage of getting to host the district tournament in February.
“We just plugged them into Rhea County’s spot in the rotation and it happened to let them host this year,” explained Jackson.
The wrestling Hurricanes face the toughest test of the EH athletic programs as it joins District 8, which includes state championship programs from Bradley and Soddy-Daisy, as well as Ooltewah. Their region includes reigning dual and traditional state champion Cleveland, as well as state-ranked Walker Valley.
While they have not advanced to the state duals as a team yet, a pair of Hurricane wrestlers — Briar Porter (106) and Matt Meeks (120) — are returning traditional state qualifiers.
The spring sports are EH’s most impressive, with state tournaments teams in fast-pitch softball and boys’ soccer, individuals state qualifiers in tennis and track, plus a baseball team that has advanced to region play three of its four years, including a pair of state sectional games under its belt.
After 25 years of directing the very successful Ooltewah softball program, coach Norma Nelson takes over a Lady ’Cane squad that has played in the last two TSSAA state tournaments. She was an assistant coach when the Lady Owls won a pair of state crowns in early 1990s, plus after taking over as head coach returned to four more state title games.
In her two seasons at EH, former coach Cara Stiles led the team to a 46-30-2 record, winning district, region and sectional titles both of those season. The Lady ‘Canes were 2-4 in state tournament play, tying for fourth place at this year’s Spring Fling.
After going 9-5-1 in their inaugural season, the ‘Cane soccer squad has gone 50-7-4, with a pair of state tournament berths, including a Final 4 finish in 2011 and an Elite 8 appearance in May.
Coach Steve Garland’s EH baseball squad has posted an 83-28 record the past three seasons, with sectional playoff appearances in 2011 as well as this past season, when they won their lone District 6-AA title.
With individual qualifiers in each of its seasons, the EH track had its best showing in Murfreesboro two months ago as the boys team finished ninth with 23 points, while the girls came in 20th place.
The Hurricanes have also had some success on the tennis courts with Bailey Lenoir and Erwin Kupris making a Final 4 run in the state doubles tournament this past season, while current Lee University netter Taylor Johnson made the Elite 8 in the 2012 girls’ singles state event.
While both EH and Rhea’s primary color is green, the similarity ends there and are is as different as the rural and suburban settings of there campuses.