Follow Us On:

Three games, three wins and a title

Posted on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 at 8:05 am


Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on the Shelbyville Central High School Golden Eaglettes 1974 TSSAA Class L State Championship. See the March 6 edition for part one.

A newspaper cutout showing the 1974 State Champions – the Shelbyville Eaglettes.

It was 4 in the afternoon on a Thursday, a school day and a work day. The location was almost three hours away. The chance for advancement was sketchy at best.

Taking all of these things into consideration, Shelbyville Central High girls’ basketball coach Bobby Locke warned his players not to expect rousing cheers from a friendly crowd when they walked onto the court for the second round of the TSSAA State Tournament at Jackson Coliseum in Jackson, Tennessee.

A 57-37 rout of Tullahoma on Tuesday night in the last game of the first round was witnessed by the group of fans who regularly attended Golden Eaglettes games.  Tullahoma, making its first state tournament appearance, entered with a 16-10 record the worst in the tournament.

Experts said it was a lucky draw of Shelbyville in the first round since they had beaten Tullahoma twice during the regular season, but failed to mention those two wins had been by margins of three and four points.

Jan (Bub) Zitney was the top scorer with 24 points, Deborah (Jones) Lankford added 18 and Sherri (Rambo) Beachboard finished with 12.

Shelbyville led all the way. The guards held Tullahoma to a 32.6 field goal percentage. Carol hauled in 14 rebounds.

Some on press row were not impressed despite the lopsided score and expected Warren County, playing in its third straight state tournament title game and heavily favored to win the Class L championship, to end the season for the Golden Eaglettes.

Only two teams had beaten Warren County during the season. To be successful Shelbyville’s balance would have to save the day with guards Carol  Lance,  Cindy (Keane) Calahan and Janis (Cannon)  Darnell forming the guard  trio  and  Sherri and Jan  hitting  from  the outside allowing Deborah (Jones) Lankford to  unleash her hook shot.

Locke’s pregame talk proved to be unnecessary. It had been 10 years since the Golden Eaglettes had won a state title. Central High principal James Scott deemed their return to the state tournament, no matter how desperate their hopes for the title were, was important enough to cancel classes for the day.

Four school buses made their way down Interstate 40 on the three-hour drive filled with Golden Eaglettes fans ready to pack the stands and cheer for the blue-and-gold in the semifinals against Warren County. Most of them would be back for the final game Saturday as well against McNairy County.

“I still get cold chills talking about it,” forward Mary Jo Cartwright said. “Coach Locke had prepared us. He told us you all are going to have to pull together because there wouldn’t be a crowd.

“It is the one thing that sticks in my memory- believing we weren’t going to have many fans and then the place was just packed. There was excitement of coming out and hearing it. Wow it was awesome.”

Jan is certain someone at school told him about the large contingent of fans.

“They had signs and balloons,” Jan said. “To see that many people in the gym was just so uplifting. It was like, whoa, this is important to them. It was cool Mr. Scott let the students out of school.”

Sherri said it was hard to see the crowd as you went on the court, but you could hear them.

“I remember coming out on the floor and just straight up,” Sherri said. “You really couldn’t see into the crowd. It was unexpected. It was kind of overwhelming to say the least.”

Staying the course

The players responded to their fans. Entering the game as a 13-point underdog to Warren County which was 29-2.

But when the buzzer sounded the scoreboard read Shelbyville 55, Warren County 48.

The Golden Eaglettes looked like the experts were going to be right as they twice allowed Warren County to lead by eight points in the second quarter.

Jan scored 16 of her 25 points in the first half despite missing her first five shots of the second quarter. Deborah scored 16 of her 24 points in the final 14 minutes, including 12 of of the Golden Eaglettes last 15 points.

Locke knew Warren County would drop back to cover Deborah. In order to bring the guards out Jan and Sherri would have to be on target. Jan hit only two of eight shots in the first quarter and missed her first five shots in the second.

But after the slow start, Jan found her range late in the second quarter hitting three in a row and five of six. She added a couple of free throws to trim the Warren County lead to 30-26 at the half.

“Coach Locke trusted me,” Jan said. “I would quit shooting if I wasn’t scoring.

“I thought things were falling apart. Coach Locke said, `Jan, I will tell you when  to quit shooting  so just take your shot and it will fall so don’t worry about it. And it did.”

She would be on target on four of six in the opening minutes of the second half to open Deborah inside.

Defensively, Shelbyville’s guards held Barbara Biles, the Class L Midstate Player of the Year to 32 points, with only 10 in the second half. Overall the held Warren County to 44.9 percent shooting from the field.

The Golden Eaglettes shot at a 53.7 percent clip with 26 rebounds, nine by Carol.

 What were the odds?

The trip was more than worthwhile for those who made the trek to Jackson. The blue-and-gold were expected to be one and done, but somebody forgot to tell the players.

Edna Calahan, mother of Cindy and Bug had been convinced  from the  start of the season. She traveled to Jackson in  her RV and expected to  stay  awhile.

“My mother said from the beginning we were the Cinderella team and she just knew we were going to win it all,” Cindy said. “She kept a scrapbook all the way through the season.

“My Mama was right.  She was a hoot. When we won, she said, I knew you were going to win, I knew it.

The Shelbyville fans were confident with balloons filling the air above their cheering section helping them stand out in the sellout crowd of 6,500 for the championship game.

Beware the underdog

If Warren County was the pretournament favorite, McNairy County (Selmer), playing in the finals for the first time in school history, was a more than qualified alternate. Locke admitted to “Nashville Banner” sportswriter Harold Huggins that it was the first time the entire season he had been nervous the morning of a game.

The Golden Eaglettes gave Locke a lot of worry about in the first half of the game trailing 20-12 early. However, Shelbyville went on a scoring streak of 16 points while holding McNairy County to two. At the half the Golden Eaglettes led 30-27.

In the third period McNairy County rallied for a 43-40 lead.

The final minutes of the game were nail-biting time for both teams.

McNairy County’s Marilyn Gilchrist, who would be named the tournament’s most valuable player, missed three straight shots around the basket in the closing seconds.

It was the best of times and the worst of times for Jan on the court. Jan, with 18 seconds left, did something she seldom ever did. She threw the ball out of bounds on an inbound pass.

“I was taking the ball out and they were double teaming Sherrie,” Jan said. “It was the first time they had done that.

“Deborah acted like she was going to the basket so I launched a pass to her. But she was faking the move and the ball sailed over her and out of bounds. We should have practiced that throw in more with Deborah. I almost blew the entire game.”

With McNairy, down 48-47 and ready to take the lead, Janis dove on the floor and tied up a loose ball. Janis won the jump and Cindy threw the ball to Jan who was fouled according to Gene Pearce in the book “Only Eaglettes Understand”.

She hit two free throws with two seconds left to ice the win.

“It was ugly at the end, but we ended up pulling it out,” Jan said. “I thought I had blown the game when I made that bad pass. It was embarrassing how many mistakes we made.  But we won the game and that is all that matters.

“It was really nice to hit those two free throws. I knew I had to hit them. I knew I had to hit them for us to win.”

Carol would foul out with 2:08 left in game with Reita (Barrett) Naron coming off the bench to take her place. Reita proved to be a solid replacement.

“I was sad when I fouled out, but Reita did such a good job when she went in,” Carol said. “I was so proud of her.”

Cindy had four fouls at the time, prompting Locke to suffer a relapse of that early morning nervousness.

“We hadn’t substituted during the state like we did during the season,” Locke said to Huggins. “But our reserves did well.”

McNairy County counted on Marilyn Gilchrist to spark the offense, but the Shelbyville guards were not going to let anyone challenge them. Cindy, Carol and Janis used quick switches to stop McNairy County’s outside attack and blocked three shots Huggins observed.

Offensively, it was all about balance again with Deborah and Sherri scoring 18 each and Jan adding 14.

I didn`t have my best game,” Jan said. “They were tying me up.

“All I could do was get the ball to Sherri and Deborah. They both made some big shots.”

In addition to her 18 points, Deborah also was bleeding as the result of an elbow to her eye.

“I told a reporter it hurt,” Deborah said. “But it felt much better since we had won.

“It was a team effort. Everybody felt a part of it. If you wanted something you had to go and get it.”

In talking with the players “team” is the operative word. Everyone worked together for a win doing whatever it took to be victorious.

“I thought the real key to the whole game was the way our forwards handled their guards when they were trying to get the ball up the court,” Locke said to “Nashville Banner” sports writer C.B. Fletcher. “We forced several big turnovers that way and our guards came up with two clutch steals when we were three down with four minutes to play and McNairy County started to stall.”

Despite her mother’s confidence, Cindy was wondering who was going to get the championship trophy as those last seconds ticked away.

“Even in the final seconds I thought we were going to lose,” Cindy said. “I was just screaming for them to shoot and I guarded them closely. That’s about all I did.”

The final countdown

In addition to a bloody face, Deborah, hitting 20-of-27 from the field set a state tournament record with a 74.1 field goal percentage.

Carol’s 29 rebounds were also a state tourney record as well.

Carol and Jan were named to the All-Tournament team.

The TSSAA ruled those records were no longer valid with the arrival of five-on-five girls basketball.

Perhaps Larry Woody summed up the tournament the best in his column in the “Tennessean”.

Said Woody, “Along about 10:45 last Friday night a lot of folks  in the Jackson Coliseum began pinching  themselves to make sure  they hadn’t  drifted off  into fantasyland,” Woody continued,  “Was this really the finals of the Girls Class L State Tournament, and did  the scoreboard really read Shelbyville  48, McNairy County 47 with 18 seconds left to play?

“The team that made its way through the district tournament, but no way it would make it through the regional…well it made it through the regional but the Substate will wind it up. Well, what’s that? Made it to the state.  You’re kidding. Shelbyville?

“Oh well, the girls have worked hard so they deserve the trip. Maybe Bobby Locke will let the girls stay down for the rest of the tournament after they are eliminated.

“Beat Tullahoma you say? Well they got a lucky draw, but at least they have had a good experience…wonder how badly Warren County’ll put it on ‘em? Ten? 15?

“Holy cow- Shelbyville beat Warren County? Hold the line while we recheck that score. Shelbyville in the finals?”

But it was no joke, except on the many who counted the Golden Eaglettes out.

“I don’t know how we did it, but we did,” Janis said. “I guess we just wanted it that bad.

“We had some good nights didn’t we? We were so proud and excited. I like to win. It’s a whole lot more fun when you win.”

Locke was asked the obvious question in the middle of a raucous locker room during the championship celebration.

“Were people overlooking us all through the tournaments,” Locke answered with a question of his own. “Yes, I imagine a lot of teams were, and yes, I imagine it help us win some of the games we won.”

Next week: Coach Bobby Locke and the development of the 1974 team.