The last 50 years of the 20th century saw the Grundy County Lady Yellow Jacket basketball become one of the most suc-cessful programs in the southeastern part of Tennessee. The Lady Jackets were a part of the Middle Tennessee region for years that was the strength of girls’ basketball in the state. They were a part of the old District 16 in the 1960s that included Spencer (Van Buren County); Manchester (Coffee County); Dibrell; Centertown; Morrison; Irving College; McMinnville Central; and McMinnville City.
The Lady Jacket history of success began before then, but the 1960s were the prelude to a very ruling time period where the Lady Jackets totally dominated the Sequachee Valley Conference and all the districts they competed in over the last 40 years of the 20th century.
They would arguably be the second best program during that time period in the southeastern part of Tennessee, next to Bradley County.
The Lady Jackets won the SVC tournament and usually the conference championship every year from 1970 – 1980. Most people felt the main reason Sale Creek was added to the conference was to try and dethrone the Lady Jackets. It didn’t work!
Taking it up a notch
In the fall of 1977, the Lady Jackets were about to take it up a notch. First year head coach Mike Gifford became the first coach in years to coach girls’ basketball without being the head coach of football or the boys’ team. Also, during the same time a freshman sensation in Tannis Overturf began her career that would help the Lady Jackets reach heights in girls’ basketball they had never reached.
The 1977 – 1978 team won the Region championship over the Kingston Lady Yellow Jackets and went to the first substate in the history of the program. During this time, not only were they playing 6 on 6, they also played the substate on a neutral court. The Lady Jackets trailed only once and that was on a last second shot by Livingston Academy’s Jackie Poindexter to lose by two points at the Hooper – Eblen Center on the Tennessee Tech campus in Cookeville. The team finished 28 – 4.
The final 6 on 6
The 1978 – 1979 team would be the final team to play 6 on 6. They would not repeat as region champions, but their runner – up finish to the Kingston Lady Yellow Jackets sent them back to Cookeville and Tennessee Tech for a rematch with the Lady Wildcats of Livingston Academy. The roles were completely reversed. After trailing almost the entire game, the Lady Jackets took the lead late and defeated the Lady Wildcats and earned their first ever trip to the state tournament.
The Lady Jackets played the Lady Buffaloes of West Greene on Wednesday, March 14, at 9 p.m., in Murphy Center on the campus of MTSU in Murfreesboro. The Lady Jackets led by 31 points from Overturf, 21 points by Angie Northcutt, and 15 points by Dorie Sanders which held off the Lady Buffaloes 69 – 60 to ad-vance to the semi – finals. The starting guards on the state tournament team were Connie Nunley, Valerie Mayes, and Debbie Caldwell.
On Thursday, March 15, at 9 p.m., the Lady Jackets battled the Lady Mustangs of Loretto, who were led by Louisiana Tech alumnus Jennifer White. The Lady Jackets led 57 – 50 with 4:23 left when the Lady Mustangs turned up the pressure to overcome the Lady Jackets 67 – 63. White scored 41 points for the Lady Mustangs. Overturf was equally as sensational as she connected on 15 of 17 shots from the floor and 9 of 13 from the line for 39 points. Northcutt added 18 points and Sanders scored six points. Humboldt defeated Loretto in the championship game 58 – 56. The Lady Jackets finished 31 – 4.
The 6 on 6 era was over. There were some great memories. The post play on the forward end was a thing of beauty. Most of the teams that made it to the state tournament would have a post player that could work the post area like no one has ever seen. It was one of the most graceful movements in all of basketball. When a post player made a move and shot a fade away jumper they rarely even hit the rim, they were almost unbeatable. That is what Overturf brought to the Lady Jackets.
Ushering in 5 on 5
The 1979 – 1980 season ushered in the 5 on 5 concept to girls’ basketball. The Lady Jackets made the adjustment just fine. They would finish runner – up in the region, once again to the Lady Yellow Jackets of Kingston, and play Cannon County at Vol State, in Gallatin, against the Cannon County Lady Lions. The Lady Jackets lost to the red hot Lady Lions 73 – 67. The Lady Jackets had lost to the Lady Lions at Christmas without Overturf. She sprained her ankle on the opening tip and didn’t play in the game they lost by two points. Everyone felt our chances were really good, but Cannon County was on fire. If there had been three pointers during this time, they would probably have had at least 15. It was an unbelievable shooting performance and the Lady Jackets season ended at 29 – 4.
The 1980 – 1981 season saw the Lady Jackets defeat the Kingston Lady Yellow Jackets in the region championship which ended the two year losing streak to Kingston and the fourth consecutive region championship between the two schools. This was the first year that the region champion got to host the substate. The Lady Jackets defeated the Sparta Warriorettes and earned their second trip to the state tournament in three years.
The Lady Jackets played Knox South Young on Wednesday March 11, at 7:30 p.m., and lost a heartbreaker 47 – 46. The Lady Jackets were hamstrung by Overturf’s foul trouble. She managed only eight points and fouled out. Betsy Oliver led the Lady Jackets with 20 points. Renee Sherrill, Lisa Winton, and Kim Wiggins were the other starters. Giles County defeated Milan 52 – 31 in the championship game. The Lady Jackets went 28 – 5.
The four year run saw the Lady Jackets go 116 – 17, with four trips to the substate and two trips to the state tournament in Murfreesboro. It is the best four year run in the history of the proud program.
Five years later, head coach Ricky Richards, in his fifth season, got the Lady Jackets back to the state tournament in 1986. The Lady Jackets defeated Livingston Academy in Cookeville, at Tennessee Tech, for the region championship. They hosted and defeated the Lady Redskins of Loudon in the sub-state.
The Lady Jackets played the South Greene Lady Rebels to open state tournament play. The Lady Jackets and Lady Rebels tipped off at 7 p.m., on Wednesday, March 12. Debbie Drayton hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. However, the Lady Rebels won the contest 60 – 54. Drayton led the Lady Jackets with 14 points. Carol Newsome added 11 points. The other starters were Bobbie Sue Rose, Melinda Wilson, and Sam Sweeton. David Lipscomb defeated South Greene in the championship game 51 – 44. The Lady Jackets were 29 – 7 on the season.
The Lady Jackets returned to the substate in 1992, 1996, and 1997. In 1992, the Lady Jackets lost at Cannon County to the Lady Lions. In 1996, the Lady Jackets won the region and hosted York Institute at Marion County High School and lost. In 1997, the Lady Jackets lost in the region championship to McMinn Central at Cleveland State and lost to Livingston Academy in Livingston in the substate.
Defense wins championships
Even though the four year run of 1977 – 1981 is probably the best, the 1997 -19 98 season is the single best season, not only in girls basketball, but in all sports in Grundy County history. The Lady Jackets not only ushered in their new gym with a season opening victory over the legendary Shelbyville Eaglettes, they hosted the district and region tournaments as well. They won the district, but were upset in the waning seconds against the Brainerd Lady Panthers to finish second in the region.
The Lady Jackets traveled to play the Lady Blue Devils of Harriman in what is now known as the sectionals. The Lady Jackets would overcome their hosts and earn their first trip in 12 years to the state tournament. Coach Richards and his team were three games from making history.
The old saying, “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships,” was never truer than in the 1998 state tournament. The Lady Jackets would hold all three opponents to less than 40 points, a combined 32 percent from the field, and 21 percent behind the arc. Tourney MVP Julie Miller would become the second of three players that to this day share the state tournament record of 15 blocked shots for the tournament.
The Lady Jackets defeated the Daniel Boone Lady Trailblazers 53 – 33 on Thursday, March 12, at 11:30 a.m. Miller and Amanda Gallagher led the way with 14 points. Kasey Woodlee had 11 points. Miller had six blocks in the quarterfinal game.
On Friday, March 13, at 5:30 p.m., the Lady Jackets opened the evening session with a 49 – 33 victory over the McMinn Central Lady Chargers to avenge their 1997 region championship loss. Freshman Abi Ramsey led the Lady Jackets with 24 points. Miller added 12 points and six more blocks. The victory set the stage for the Lady Jackets’ shot at their first state championship.
On Saturday, March 14, at 5 p.m. the Class AA state championship game tipped off and the Lady Jackets would pull out a thrilling, history-making win over the Lady Wildcats of Livingston Academy 43 – 38. Miller and Ramsey scored 15 points and Gallagher added 10 points. Miller added three more blocked shots for her tournament record tying 15. Teri Winton was the fifth starter for the Lady Jackets. A very small side note was the win gained their second measure of revenge from 1997, when the Lady Jackets lost in the sectional to the Lady Wildcats. However, the history making win will be remembered forever by the team, coaches, and fans that were there. The Lady Jackets finished 30 – 6.
The Lady Jackets haven’t been back to the state since. However the 2011 – 2012 team lost to McMinn Central in the sectional. The glory days were still very special and there were some very good teams that didn’t make it past the first round of the region. Nevertheless, girls’ basketball in Grundy County will always have its place in Tennessee history. Hopefully, we can return to that type of basketball in the near future and create some more glory days.