It was homecoming at Woodland Park Elementary in Sparta, TN. Representatives from each class (PreK-fifth grade) and fifth grade basketball players and cheerleaders were being recognized. My niece was representing the fourth grade and my nephew was a fifth grade basketball player so I went to support them then watch them play after the festivities.
Basketball homecoming at elementary, middle, and high schools around the county always includes a week of dress up days. Each day has a theme and all the kids have fun coming to school in costume. Teachers and principals participate making it a fun week for everyone.
We have seven elementary schools scattered around our White County. Each school has a basketball team and a cheerleading squad. Every fall, the school teams compete against each other with fierce determination. The gyms are packed with supportive parents, grandparents, teachers, and classmates, everyone eager for their team to come out the victor.
Lest you think this is all cute, be forewarned. This can be serious business.
When our kids were still preschoolers, Bill and I went to watch my nephew, Drew, who is now a senior at the University of Tennessee, play in an elementary school basketball game. We were shocked at the number of people who attended and the gusto with which they cheered. We came home a bit bemused at how intense this event seemed to be to so many there. I will admit, we were even a tad judgmental of our fellow Sparta natives.
The last time I had been to an elementary basketball game was when I played for East Sparta Elementary. That school has since been condemned and cleared away. At any rate, WAY BACK THEN, we were the Broncos and beat Findlay Elementary in the championship.
It was a huge moment for us then but I don’t really think the parents were very involved beyond taking us to games and picking us up from practice. That’s how I remember it anyway.
Unbeknownst to me, just a few short years after watching Drew, our own kids would be playing for another school, Northfield Elementary with Bill coaching their team.
The team would practice and strategize and agonize over ways to finally bring down the mighty undefeated giant of our county. At games we would cheer with more enthusiasm than I imagined possible. We finally met our foe, the opposing team filled with kids that went to church with our kids, played on the same baseball team as our kids, and spent the night on weekends – but that night they were the giant, and we were David, destined for our moment. With the gym packed to standing room only, we won the battle for the first time in almost 10 years. If you ask Cade, our 17 year old high school senior, what is the best game of his life, he will say it was that night. After the game, Cade and his buddies from the opposing team got their picture made together. Game over. Buddies again. Many of them now play ball together at the high school on the same team.
Keep in mind that this is elementary school basketball. Also keep in mind that I was condemning and mocking this behavior just a few years previous before I found myself engulfed in the world of elementary school basketball in Sparta, TN.
But also take note that in spite of the level of competition, friends are never discarded nor are sweet kids who happen to be playing for the opposite team cheered when they err. Though the referees may catch a little heat, the kids will not, even in the toughest battles. Though none of us are perfect, you will find Sparta to be fiercely competitive and yet fiercely protective of all our little ones whether they are wearing the same colors or not.
When our elementary kids graduate fifth grade, they are all funneled into White County Middle School for sixth through eighth grades. There is only one middle school and one high school in our county, which creates a great feel of community in Sparta. There is a boys’ and a girls’ basketball team for each grade in middle school. It is difficult to make the team at this level but I know of several kids who didn’t make the team in 6th but persevered and made the team in 8th grade.
On certain days of the week, you can go to the middle school and watch games from 4:00 in the afternoon until about 9:00. The other nights you can catch up on elementary basketball as there are games going on all over the county. To keep up with all of this activity, read our local paper The Expositor. Tammy “Pistol” Wilhite does a great job of covering as many games as possible and making our kids sound like all-stars (which they are, of course.)
Once our kids reach high school, the time demanded to play basketball becomes a bit more demanding.
There are work outs almost year round plus team camps in the summer and then the season itself, making it difficult, though not impossible to play multiple sports. Many of the athletes choose one or two sports to focus on once they reach this level.
Sparta has quite a successful history in basketball. In 1971-72, we had a team everyone called “The Blitz Kids”. They were fast and fun to watch and made a state appearance. David Culley, now assistant head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, was on that team as was our Glen Wilson, who you might run into around town.
In 1980 we had another talented team we called Roy’s Boys (for their coach, Roy Sewell) that went to the state making it all the way to the semi-finals. I remember that Sparta factories shut down and rented buses to transport their workers to the games in Murfreesboro, TN. All the schools in the county dismissed early so we would have time to get to the game. If you run into Rick Powell or Timmy or Terry Brock in Sparta, ask them about their glory days.
In 1998 our boys’ team won the state championship and then did it again in 1999. The players and coaches of those teams are still treated like heroes in our town even though it was years ago. Brad Walker was on the 1998 team and is now the pastor at First Baptist of Sparta. Cool, huh?
Our girls’ team went to the state tournament in 1990, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, and 97. In both 1991 and ’92 we made it to the championship only to be defeated in a heart breaker both years. From this state bound team, our own Lisa Leftwich went on to play at Virginia Tech and was named Conference Defensive Player of the Year a couple of times up there.
Ginger Jared, the Warriorettes’ all-time leading scorer, was named MVP of the state tournament in spite of the fact that we lost. She signed with Vanderbilt and became their all-time assist leader at that time. Our 1993-94 season, the Warriorettes were ranked #1 in the nation for 8 consecutive weeks. Kellie Jolly Harper was on that team and went on to play for Coach Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee where she picked up 3 national championships and was named to the All Final Four team…twice.
Between 1991 and 1998, we had 15 girls sign NCAA Division I basketball scholarships. That’s quite a history for a little town.
After a 16 year drought, our little high school team once again made a state tournament appearance last year (2015). The team won their district, their region, and then won sub-state which was played in front of a standing room only crowd at our own White County High School sending us to the state tournament in Murfreesboro, TN.
The high school loaded up buses and carried students to the game. If fan base determined victories, we clenched a ‘W’ before the game began. As if that isn’t enough, our girls’ team had a great season as well, upsetting all preseason predictions, winning their district, their region, and finally dropping at the sub-state level.
It was a thrilling season for our little town and even more so for Bill and me since Cade, our 17 year old, was able to be part of the team and the excitement. Bill was also able to volunteer as an assistant coach for the team for the season which finally ended in a loss just 2 games shy of the crown.
I sit and watch as Anna Kate, my 4th grade niece, dressed to the nines, is given a flower and then takes her place on the Woodland Park gym floor.
Then Bray, my 5th grade nephew, accepts the colors around his neck and takes his place. Soon the awards are all given out and the gym floor is filled with young girls from both teams ready to compete.
I cheer when Kate rebounds and shoots. Just like when my Cade and Cole played, the gym is full. Seats are hard to come by. The last quarter of the game is the best as the youngest girls take the floor and the ball goes back and forth in a frenzy. Everyone is entertained in the best way possible and the kids enjoy their time on the court.
Then the boys’ teams come out. The pace is faster and the score multiplies quickly. I cheer for Bray when he makes a steal and blocks a shot. The game is soon over.
Hugs and “good game” are distributed and then I’m back home, asking my teenage boys (and Bill) how their practice went as they prepare for another season. Here we go again. This year is a bit different, however. Both my boys, Cade (senior) and Cole (junior) made the team. I hope to see them playing together on the court this season.
Please come out and be a part of Sparta’s basketball culture.
We would love to have you as a new Sparta Warrior and Warriorette fan…plus I need help cheering on my boys (“my boys” in this case, consists of all the Warriors and, of course, the ladies, our Warriorettes)! Please join our madness!
Much appreciation goes to Tammy “Pistol” Wilhite for all her help with White County basketball history.
Kellie Jolly Harper is now Missouri State women’s head basketball coach.
Ginger Jared married my cousin and is now Ginger McCormick. You may see her occasionally at Wal-Mart.
Brad Walker, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sparta, would love to see you in the pews any Sunday I would think and would probably have some time afterward to talk about basketball.
If all this sounds like fun, we would love to have you as a neighbor and a fellow Warrior fan in Sparta, TN. Let us know if you have any questions about New Homes in Sparta or our sweet town.