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’74 Eaglettes recount journey to TSSAA Championship

Posted on Wednesday, March 6, 2024 at 8:00 am


This is the first of a three-part series on the 1973-74 Shelbyville Central High Girls Basketball team under the direction of head coach Bobby Locke and assistant coach Doug Langston stunned the high school basketball world by winning the TSSAA State Championship.

Success is sweet. Success when you’re a perennial underdog is even sweeter.

In 1974, the Shelbyville Central High School girls’ basketball team was referred to as an underdog more times than they were called the Eaglettes. They entered the Class “L” State Tournament winning 12 in a row and 13 of their last 14.

Entering the state tournament, the Eaglettes were 26-6 thanks to the late season surge. Wearing their trademark plaid skirts, gold shirts, and dark blue blazers the Eaglettes walked into Jackson Coliseum with only the most optimistic observers giving them a chance to be there at the end.

The players believed. Other than their fans, no one else did.

“We knew we had potential,” said Mary Jo Cartwright, a then junior forward. “We were gelling. It was definitely a deal where we peaked at the right time.

“We believed in each other. We were a close group. We believed in our coaches.”

Pictured are Jan Zitney, Margaret Rippy, Deborah Lankford, Carol Lance, Deane Cash, Sherri Beachboard, Mary Jo Cartwright, Lisa White, Janis Darnell, Cindy Calahan, Reita Naron, Bug Calahan, Angie Rippy, Vicki Nichols, Cindy Dial, Val Ray, Bobby Locke, Susie Galland, Becky Shreet, Martha Williams, Betty Lane, Bertha Stewart, and Doug Langston.

No easy road

A 63-50 loss to Marshall County in the Region 5-L finals was the only blot on the late season run. The Eaglettes had beaten Marshall County in the District 17 L Finals.

“That game showed us we could lose and we had to really work at it not to let it happen again,” said then season guard Cindy (Keane) Calahan.  “I hated playing Lewisburg. But losing was a blessing in disguise. The Lord prepared us for the rest of the way.

“Somehow we were off that night. I don’t know why. We usually could look in each other’s minds and know. We were in shock. We just didn’t have any energy.”

But the Eaglettes advanced to the SubState at the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State University where they played Jacksonville Central-Merry, a loser in the Region 6 L finals to McNairy County. Shelbyville, a four-point underdog in the game according to a “Tennessean” story, earned the state tournament berth with a 45-35 victory.

Despite all of the naysayers, three games later they were no longer underdogs, but the 1974 TSSAA Large School State Champion. They had opened with a 57-37 win over Tullahoma, a team they beat twice during the regular season. The Eaglettes followed with a 55-48 semifinal defeat of heavily favored Warren County and a gritty 50-47 finish for the title against McNairy County.

In many ways the “underdog” tag was baffling.

The 1974 Eaglettes had put together the best regular season record at 21-5 since the 1964 team won the state championship. They were a top-10 team in what was then the Class L (Large) schools poll. It was a simpler time when schools were either classified “Large” or “Small.”

But they had not won more than five games at a time during the 1973-74 season until that final surge.

Members of the 1974 Shelbyville Central High School girls’ basketball team looked over scrapbooks about the historic season in the “Bedford County Post” office. From left are Deborah (Jones) Lankford, Sherri (Rambo) Beachboard, Reita (Barrett) Naron and Mary Jo Cartwright. (Photo by Mark McGee)

The super six

Back in the day of six-on-six women’s basketball, it was a balanced team which featured three forwards – senior Jan (Bubb) Zitney, junior Sherri (Rambo) Beachboard, and junior Deborah (Jones) Lankford – averaging in double figures in scoring. Cartwright replaced Zitney for two games when she was sidelined with a sprained ankle and averaged 18 points.

The starting guards, all seniors, were led by top rebounder and team captain Carol “Tree” Lance, steals specialist Janis (Cannon) Darnell, and Calahan, who was the go-to guard to bring the ball up and pass it over the line to the offense, usually to Zitney.

“It was absolutely a team effort,” Zitney said. “It took every one of us to win. I do remember one of the write-ups at the time said all three of us could shoot. If you double-teamed one of us someone else was open. If the other team tried to play us man-to-man they were going to lose because we had three shooters.

“On any given night no one knew who was going to be the top scorer. And defensively we had the answer to what the other team was going try to do on offense.”

It was the second year in a row all of the starters had played together. Before the start of the post season tournaments, Locke liked what he was seeing from his team on the court.

“This season they have worked together as well as any girls’ team I have had,” Locke, who also directed the Eaglettes to the 1964 State Class “L” title said to “Tennessean” sports writer Larry Woody during the state tournament.

In fact, “balance” was mentioned in descriptions of the Shelbyville team almost as often as “underdog.” Locke told Harold Huggins of the old “Nashville Banner” it was the “most balanced team he had ever coached.”

Using an inside-outside offensive attack, the Golden Eaglettes depended on the outside shooting of Beachboard and Zitney with the 5-foot-11 Lankford underneath with a deadly hook shot.

Height and quickness were the keys on defense with Lance, a lanky 5-11 1/2, Darnell at 5-5 and Calahan at 5-8.

The turning point

When did a good team start making the transition to becoming a great one? Ironically, it was after a loss the previous season at Smyrna.

“I guess it all started the season before when we lost at Smyrna,” Coach Bobby Locke said to then “Times-Gazette” sports editor Bo Melson. “That was the low point for us. We’ve had some bad games since then, but that was the low point.”

A 25-point loss at Manchester on January 11 during the 1973-74 season was an equal low point, but an inspiring one.

“We said we weren’t going to lose any more after that game,” Beachboard said. “I was shocked we made it to the state tournament…not that we couldn’t win it, but that it was happening.”

Next: Three games, three wins and a title.