Just Thinking by Mac McLeod

Before we close the door, pull down the curtain, turn out the lights, etc. the 2020-21 high school basketball season deserves a few parting comments and thoughts. It has a few “what ifs” and a couple “possible maybes”, but the one thing for sure is it will be long remembered and for a couple reasons.

On the local scene, and even at the state level, Upperman had the best girls team and Macon girls won the championship. I’m sure there are some strong beliefs otherwise, especially around Lafayette, but the fact is the Macon girls were rooted out last season by the virus, and despite a fine 33-1 overall record, the Lady Tigers didn’t get to play for the state’s Golden Ball. This time, regardless of some losses of their own and a few key upsets around the district, Larry White’s Lady Tigerettes grabbed some lucky breaks, never gave up, and won the title game last Saturday against Grainger, 51-40.

Hats off to Macon County and coach Larry White, they won it and the trophy is in their showcase. Also, congratulations to Upperman’s Reagan Hurst for claiming “Miss Basketball”. She was simply outstanding, not just the past season, but for the three before.

But as the old saying sometimes goes: I’d rather be lucky than good – and in the case of the Lady Tigers this year, that has some merit.

Back in the regular season, Livingston Academy’s girls went to Macon in January and ran into a hot shooting home team that for the first two and a half minutes couldn’t miss and forged ahead by some 17 points. The Lady Wildcats finally got their act together, settled down and “won” the rest of the game. Winning three-fourths of a game doesn’t count and Macon won 45-37.

There was some real good news that came out of that game in that Livingston finally realized it could win the big games, and when Macon came to Livingston a week or so later, it was the Lady Wildcats that took control early, and this time they didn’t let go, trouncing the visitors 61-44.

Upperman defeated everyone both times during the regular season, except for the final game, played at Macon where the Lady Tigers upended the district undefeated Lady Bees. Regardless, Upperman won the district tournament, but in the regional tournament, the Lady Dragons knocked Upperman totally out of the run for another state title with an unbelievable half-court-plus shot with only 4 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime and won when they held the Lady Bees scoreless in the extra quarter while putting three on their side of the board.

So, with all that unnecessary information, what does it prove? Really nothing, but one big factor is overlooked in all this and it was the COVID-19 pandemic. While some schools weren’t affected by school closings and ball games played, it did affect Livingston and the Lady Wildcats big time.

Just when things were coming together after the first Macon game, Livingston was forced to make up about 11 or 12 games in a 14 or 15 game period, and it wore them out. After the first one or two, nothing seemed to be out of order, but as the non-stop stretch rolled on, it was evident that fatigue was setting in on the Lady Cats and there was nothing that could be done to prevent it. The schedule had to be played out.

Despite losing in the third round of the district tournament and the first round of the regional event, Lesley Riddle and her Lady Wildcats showed vast improvement over the past couple seasons, and with the graduation of only three seniors, promise to be even better next season.

Finishing 20-10 overall, shows the dedication of Coach Riddle, her assistants Bill Sells and Abby Jolly, and the determination of all the players to be better than they had been. Two years back, Livingston finished a miserable 9-22, and last year it improved a little to 14-16. Somewhere in there, the school administration and its director decided “on some bad advice” that it was time for Coach Riddle to go.

Despite over 500 wins at the time, numerous district, regional, and sub-state titles and one state championship, suddenly it was time for Coach Riddle to go. Thankfully former players and faithful fans challenged the director and he changed his mind a day or two later. Ironically, the coach deservingly got her job back and the director lost his.

I’m not sure the “glory days” of Livingston Academy girls basketball are back where it used to be, but I know for a fact the program is moving forward, and when next fall arrives, the Lady Cats will be a factor in the regular season and the tournament championships. They showed improvement was coming, and just talk with them and the confidence is building.

To all who were involved, coaches, players, managers and especially the fans who “hung in there”, I say “thanks”.

And I couldn’t get away without giving a “well done” to Coach Jimmy Miller, his assistants Nate Kennard and Zac Craig for another fine season by the LA Wildcats. As has become the case with Miller and his crew, they’ve taken a scrappy group of players, refined their skills, and turned them into a well oiled team.

Prior to the 2020-21 season, there were a lot of questions hanging like would senior Matthew Sells get enough help to get the team anywhere or could Sells break the all time scoring record? Would Nick Choate recover from his injuries and take a pivotal role in the team’s play? Would injuries hamper the team, and could the younger players step up and face the challenge?

Well, those and other questions were answered despite all the postponed games, injuries, and questionable experience, and Livingston finished the season with a fine 19-12 overall record and a third place finish in the district behind powerful Upperman and always strong York.

As it did with the girls, the COVID pandemic created a lot of unforeseen circumstances like playing 12 games in 14 days, which, in the end, created some nights when the players would have liked a rest instead of a game. But the crew carried on. Junior Hayden Ledbetter was a key factor in the early going, but a knee went out in about the 7th or 8th game, and he was done for the season. That hurt.

The good news was Choate worked hard and got his game together and became a factor inside. Isaac Story walked on to a guard spot and never gave it up, scoring in critical spots and playing outstanding defense. Eli Melton joined Story in becoming a big factor in many of the games down the stretch, and Hunter Coffman came off the bench to give the Wildcats some fine “playing minutes” while resting his teammates.

And never overlook senior Nate Carwile. Had Carwile been 6-6 instead of 5-7, he would have been “Mr. Basketball” more years than one. Carwile’s presence on the floor was incredible, any night outrebounding most of the tall players on the floor. His “hustle” will be remembered for a long time.

Then there was Bryson Tucker. Tucker didn’t play basketball until his senior year, but when the time came, he could get the job done. A shame he didn’t play before, but at least we got him for one year, and his highlight is a big one – he scored the 100th point in the first round of the regional tournament at Cumberland County.

It was also the same night Sells broke all the school scoring records, including the school’s mark of 2,633 held by Sunday Watson. And to finish off his career right, he set a single game record of 51.

Matthew, there’s not much more I can say. Your name is right there with the finest to ever wear the Blue and White, and when records are mentioned, your name will always be first. Thanks for four wonderful years of watching you, not only score points, but play the game as it was intended to be played.

Best to those moving on, and for those of you coming back – get ready to give us more Livingston Academy basketball.