During my first year in this job, Mt. Juliet’s girls were headed for the state tournament. Mt. Juliet’s boys - not so much.
Following the first round of the District 9-AAA tournament, I ran a “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” pair of photographs. One picture was of the Lady Bears cheering on the bench at the end of one of their 31 victories that season. The other was of boys’ coach Jimmy Hatcher looking forlornly at the scoreboard as the clock ticked down to the end a season which had a big fat “zero” under the W column.
My boss was Hatcher’s brother. Sam said he dreaded going home after that photo ran, thinking Jimmy, who I always found to be low key, wouldn’t have a good reaction.
I asked Sam the following day how Jimmy took it, Sam said he surprisingly took it well.
I ran Jimmy’s photo again not long afterward when he resigned from his coaching position. He was back on the bench as Tommy Martin’s assistant on the girls’ team three years later when, even as the Amanda Butler-led Lady Bears were back in the state tournament, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which took his life some five months later.
Meanwhile, Jimmy’s assistant and successor, Mike Gwaltney, rebuilt the Bears to the point they reached the Region 5-AAA tournament. Gwaltney’s successor, former MJ two-sport standout Tim Bell, led the Bears to what was then called the substate, endured a rebuilding year or two and then took them to two more substates as the boys enjoyed a run of success.
After Bell moved into administration and a couple of coaches later, Troy Allen arrived from Hillsboro and took the Bears back to the sectional. As the years progressed, Allen’s teams, always hard-nosed and physical, became known as region tournament giant killers, twice beating District 10’s tournament champion as a No. 4 seed, including a Northeast team starring current Indiana Pacer Alex Poythress.
Allen’s Bears returned to the sectional in 2005, and again in ’06 and ’07.
This year, Mt. Juliet survived a stretch when their coach was sidelined by a herniated disc which required surgery. The Bears didn’t miss a beat under interim coach Michael Berardi and eventually claimed their first-ever district championship.
A first-ever region title did not follow as they were sent on the road for the sectional for the fourth straight season.
But this team, and year, was different as in front of the most packed sectional crowd I’ve seen in years, Mt. Juliet’s finally broke through and experienced what so many girls’ teams have over the last four decades.
Mt. Juliet will face a one-loss Bearden team, a consistent Knoxville power with plenty of state experience, in the state quarterfinals Wednesday afternoon.
But regardless of what happens, the Golden Bears have come a long way.
Comings and goings of officiating
Earlier this season, I went to shoot pictures at a Friendship Christian game when I had one of those “now I’ve seen it all” moments.
One of the three officials looked just like Tom Brandon, younger son of legendary coach Campbell and brother of Bud.
Sure enough, it was Tom. He said he began officiating after his three 20-something sons - Casey, Connor and Clark - graduated from Wilson Central. Not only that, but all three sons were now officiating as well. He said he had even worked a middle-school game with his sons. Sort of reminded me of the Packs - one of whom, Bob (a 50-year veteran), lives in Lebanon - who once made up an entire officiating crew with their dad, Bill, who’s a hall of famer in his own right.
The Brandons may be the premier basketball family in Wilson County, known mostly for coaching. I’ve often thought since then how great it is to see Tom and sons give back to the game in another capacity.
Speaking of the other capacity, while the Brandons are relatively new at toting whistles on the court, a veteran is hanging up his after 41 seasons on the floor.
David (Slick) Tomlinson began officiating in 1977, shortly after graduating from high school. He cut back some when sons Adam and Aaron played for Friendship Christian, where Adam is the Commanders’ career scoring leader. Now both sons are coaches - Aaron at Winfree Bryant and Adam as a Matt Bradshaw assistant at Watertown.
One of the brothers writes on Facebook he’s still going to call Dad after games to complain about the officiating.
I’m sure Ken Melton, head of the North Central Association which assigns officials to member schools, hates to see Slick retire, especially when referees are in short supply to the point the TSSAA and other athletic governing bodies, including the NAIA, are putting out “help wanted” signs. But he’s earned the chance to watch his sons coach and play with his two grandkids.
I know everyone who’s a sports fan, including myself, have become enraged over some of the calls made and wished bad things on those who whistle while they work. But, even though we might think differently during the heat of the moment, the games could not go on without the men in women in striped or blue (baseball and softball) or yellow (soccer) shirts.
To the Brandons, Tomlinsons, Packs and all the others out there who make it possible for the youth of all ages to play, you have my (and I’m sure coaches’, players’ and fans’) undying gratitude for your service.
At least until the next bad call.