When I arrived at Ward Ag Center for “A Salute to Wilson County Basketball Champions” Thursday evening, Nancy Guethlein told me she was nervous watching the video of Lebanon’s 56-52 win over Jackson Central-Merry.
And she was at that 1971 girls’ state basketball championship game in Jackson as an eighth-grader.
When she watched it again an hour later, she applauded a couple of good plays, told the player on the screen to block out, told the team to get the rebound.
The coach of that team, Campbell Brandon, arrived midway through the game and started watching. He began complaining about the officiating and other perceived slights from that long-ago game. He noted it was the only time in state tournament history a team [Central-Merry] was playing on its home floor, which is now known as Oman Arena.
Interestingly, fans who have watched an animated Brandon on the bench at Lebanon, Watertown and Wilson Central over the last three or four decades [and the ones at Smith County who will get their look at him this winter] almost wouldn’t recognize the coach in the grainy footage. Brandon, who worked without an assistant then, sat calmly with his legs crossed the entire game. Central-Merry’s coach was more animated.
Fortunately, the people around me knew what was happening in the game. Unlike video from the other title games which came from the professional-quality TV production featuring announcers and graphics, the ’71 final appeared to be coaches’ video on a 16-millimeter film strip. No announcers [I’m told the radio call of Lynn Bogle and the late Clyde Harville still exists but would have to be located and then dubbed onto the video], no graphics. Forget about instant replay. At the end of the first quarter, the camera panned up to the overhead scoreboard to see the score. But who was leading?
In fact, which team was which? Neither team wore a light color. The film appeared to be a fading color. Once in a while you could see a slight tint of blue in Lebanon’s uniforms. Central-Merry’s colors are green and gold.
But Nancy, Campbell and most of the others there knew who was who. Gail Barnes, Lynn Rousseau and Sheree McCathern played defense as guards in the backcourt. Sherry Lowe ran the offense from the point, Pam Donald was a force in the post and Brenda Arnold earned tournament MVP honors on the wing. Had there been a Miss Basketball then, she probably would have won it. After a Devilette scored from outside, Nancy asked if I had noticed how she shot the ball. It wasn’t a jump shot, rather it was a set shot.
Something else. Unlike the later championship teams, whose state finals I covered from courtside [watching the games on video the other night, I saw some things from a different perspective which I missed when I was there in person], the ’71 girls were playing a different style of basketball.
It was a six-on-six halfcourt version with each team fielding three girls on each side of the floor. When the defensive team grabbed a rebound, a girl would dribble until she got close enough to pass to a teammate on the other side of the midcourt line, then stop and watch the play, prohibited from crossing the line.
On a made basket or free throw, a referee would take the ball out of the basket, pass to his partner at midcourt where he would flip the ball to the point guard in the center circle just inside the line where the play would commence. Sort of like NBA teams advancing the ball to midcourt via a timeout.
Nancy said she was glad to have played during the 6-on-6 era, noting she had no offensive skills at all.
When the game ended and the teams went out to get their trophies, Nancy and Robbie Farmer, who played for Brandon on later Lebanon teams which also reached state finals but didn’t win them, turned to their sheepish-looking coach and smiled.
Since that ’71 team returned home with an escort on I-40, Mt. Juliet has won three state basketball championships and Wilson Central two. Friendship has eight titles in various sports over the past eight years. All are special to those involved and their communities.
But Lebanon ’71 was the first TSSAA championship in Wilson County. And it remains the only team title in school history.
You never forget the first one.