The 2012 Landair Ladies' Classic is just around the corner, Dec. 26-29 at Hal Henard Gym. The basketball talent in that holiday tournament is always noteworthy, and it's interesting to go back over the years and reflect on some of the top players and coaches that came to our city to be a part of the tournament, which this year is in its 24th season.
What really got me to thinking about the enormous talent that has showed up here came the other day while watching, of all things, an Ole Miss football game.
What, pray tell, would an Ole Miss football game have to do with the Ladies' Classic Basketball Tournament?
Some of the long-time Classic fans will remember when Briarcrest Christian School of Memphis came to Greeneville, and they will recall that the coach was none other than Hugh Freeze, who has gone on to make quite a name for himself in the college football coaching ranks.
Freeze spent 13 years coaching at Briarcrest, but most of that time was guiding the football program to six straight state championship games. He was coach of Michael Oher, the big lineman who was the subject of the hit movie, "The Blind Side," and who now is an NFL standout with the Baltimore Ravens.
While coaching the school's girls basketball team, Freeze brought his squad here in 1999 and 2000, and they won the Classic crown in 2000 behind an impressive post player named Ashley Earley, who went on to play at Vanderbilt University and who now is an assistant coach at Marquette.
"He was obviously a heck of a girls basketball coach," said Buddy Yonz, who was chairman of the Ladies' Classic from its debut until a couple of years ago when he turned the chairmanship over to Ron Metcalfe. "He had some really good players, but you could tell he knew what he was doing. Then he went on to football, and what he's accomplished there ... well, it's been impressive."
I'll wander a bit from the focus of this column, but watching the Ole Miss game brought back other flashbacks, not the least of which was eyeing their quarterback, Bo Wallace, and recalling how he led Giles County to a state championship game win over Greeneville by throwing a late touchdown pass in the 2009 contest at Cookeville. Freeze had Wallace on the roster at Arkansas State, and when he left there to become the Ole Miss coach, he brought the quarterback with him.
Briarcrest, by the way, is now home to former Greeneville High assistant principal and wrestling coach David Hollowell, who serves as wrestling coach at the West Tennessee school.
Now, back to the Ladies' Classic.
In preparing the records and stats that are part of the Classic program, I marveled at the talent that has been part of the tournament, and it's interesting to look at the most valuable players and see what the future held for them after they left their respective high schools.
For instance, did you know that the MVP of the 2010 tournament, Chardonae Fuqua of Hoover (Ala.) is now a member of the defending national champion Baylor Bears, who are ranked No. 1 in the nation this year?
Look back at some others:
The 2009 MVP, Caya Williams of Mt. Juliet, is a freshman player at Middle Tennessee State University. Jasmine Hassell of Wilson Central was named MVP of the Classic in consecutive years, 2007-08, and she's a senior at the University of Georgia where she has enjoyed a very successful college career.
Glory Johnson of Webb in Knoxville also won MVP in consecutive years, 2005-06, and we know what she accomplished in Knoxville as a member of the Lady Vols. Now she's a member of the WNBA's Tulsa Shock.
Alyshia Clark of Mt. Juliet won the award in 2004. One of the most skilled players to ever perform in the Classic, she starred at Middle Tennessee State University.
Angela Phillips, the cat-quick point guard for Oak Ridge in 2002, was MVP and later starred at the University of Kentucky before transferring to Indiana State. She is now a professional model.
Those who go way back in the early years of the tournament will remember the red-headed player with the uncanny jump shot and the funny name, Katie Smrcka-Duffy. She played for James Madison High of Virginia. Her college career blossomed at Georgetown University, then she played for the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs. She is now a professional trainer in the northern Virginia area.
"Those who have watched all the years of the tournament, and there are more of those fans than you might think, probably talk about Smrcka-Duffy as much as anybody that's ever played here," Yonz noted.
The stories from the Ladies' Classic are never-ending. Pat Summitt has visited to view players that she was recruiting or had already committed to the Lady Vols program, and we've watched her sit and sign autographs for long periods of time in Hal Henard Gym.
One time she was in Greeneville to watch Sylvia Fowles of Miami (Fla.) Edison, who was a sophomore standout and appeared to be leaning toward Tennessee. But another Edison product, Marie Ferdinand, was already at LSU, and she apparently coaxed Fowles into playing for the Tigers.
Joe Simpson, the voice that we listen to during the summer months as he broadcasts Atlanta Braves baseball, was a visitor, watching his daughter play for a team from the Marietta (Ga.) area.
Then there was the lady named Patricia Nash of Neshoba, Miss., who scored 51 points in 1990 during a Classic game. It was only the second year of the Ladies' Classic, and it's a record that's lasted and is obviously one that will be hard to break.
The tournament gained national attention in its first year of existence. Morrow High of Georgia was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today, and they were a featured team in the 16-squad field. But they lost twice in the Classic, first to Beech of Hendersonville, then to Oak Ridge.
A local team, South Greene, won the championship of the first four Ladies' Classics, and this came when the Lady Rebels, coached by the late Larry Ricker, had gained some national acclaim of their own, being ranked at times by USA Today, once reaching among the top five teams in the country.
"Those of us who have watched the tournament all these years probably take for granted just how good some of the teams and players have been that have come here," Yonz noted. "And those South Greene teams in those years ... we probably under-appreciated just how good they were. But it's been fun to watch all these years."