By TONY STINNETT, Courier Sports Editor
It has been 25 years since Cannon County won the 1989 TSSAA Class AA Girls State Championship and etched memories into adoring fans' minds that are as vivid today as they were one quarter of a century ago.
To date it stands as the single-greatest team achievement in Cannon County sports history. It is the only state championship in school history in any sport.
The players and coaches who provided those special moments and brought the gold ball from Murfreesboro back to Cannon County are treated as royalty in this prideful community filled with people who appreciate work ethic and attaining goals.
Twenty-five years have past but the 1989 State Champions but recollections of this hefty achievement have not faded with time.
"Are you kidding; it has been 25 years," said Julie Powell, who led the royal family. "In some respects it is like a lifetime ago but, especially at this time of year when basketball is at the forefront of sports conversation, it feels like yesterday in many respects. It was such an incredible collection of young women and everybody had pride in what we were doing. We had so many people on that team that worked hard. We had incredible chemistry on that team, too. I just think back and realize what we accomplished together. It was an incredible honor to be part of that team."
So, after all these years do players remember the feeling they shared in their moment of jubilation after achieving history?
"I was just floating," said Powell, who was named Class AA State Tournament MVP. She also was named Class A Miss Basketball in 1989 - the first of two such titles. "It was pure joy; I don't know what else to call it. I was just so happy and proud. A lot of work goes into a basketball season. It doesn't just start. It was a long summer and a lot of work went into it. I was so elated for what we had accomplished, not just for the team, but for the county. It was a great win for our county."
Legendary Head Coach Robert A. Harris, a member of the TSSAA and Cannon County Halls of Fame, guided the Lionettes to the 1989 state title.
"It took us a long time to get (that state championship)," Harris said. "It was a wonderful experience. It was a great group of kids. Julie was just great but everyone was just as good as they could be. They all fulfilled their part real well. They worked together real good. They practice together. Even when we didn't have practice scheduled, they would have their own. Those girls really worked at it."
Girls such as Julie Powell, Tara Solomon, Beth Stewart, Catherine Reed, Reggie King, Tracy Smithson, Laveta Bissinger, Valerie Barney, Dense Whitlock, Angie Sissom, Charlotte Barks, Latasha Knox, Letisha Hutchins, Korie Gilley, Trina Goins, Susan Wood and Stefanie Thomas. Harris was assisted by Barbara (Nichols) Parker, who serves as Cannon County Director of Schools.
Powell, Solomon and King were named to the TSSAA All-Tournament team; however, achieving greatness was accomplished as a team.
"It was a total team effort," Solomon said. "The selflessness is what I remember. It was definitely the high point of my athletic career. I remember the joy we all had and how everybody was so happy because we had finally won."
Parker participated in the TSSAA State Tournament as a player and a coach at Cannon County. She recalls the emotion within the team on that magical night, March 11, 1989.
"It was the greatest feeling in the world," Parker said. "It was the experience of a lifetime. There is no feeling that surpasses that state championship and people still talk about it today. It seems like yesterday."
Ask Parker about moments, plays and games and she can rattle off many memorable moments still engraved to memory; however, players - not plays - are what she remembers most.
"I remember basketball but just how close they were, how dedicated they were and how smart they were," Parker said. "Those qualities and the bond they shared as friends is really what I remember. They truly liked one another and that was a guiding factor in their success."
Parker taught English at CCHS and was the players' teacher for three of their four years. In addition to serving as their assistant coach, she also was the Lioness sponsor and one of the Beta sponsors.
"They had to put up with me a lot," Parker said. "They were such a great group of girls."
Powell said Parker taught her more than basketball.
"I know her as Ms. Nichols but she was great," Powell said. "She was a great teacher and she prepared me for Vanderbilt. When I got to Vanderbilt I could write, and I was ready. She prepared me for that."
Stewart (now Beth Stewart Stark) lives in Kansas City, Mo., and was a freshman on the state championship team. Stewart was one of those special freshmen that found their way to the court from the start of her prep career.
Even though she was one of the youngest players on the team, Stewart knew what winning the gold ball meant.
"When I was growing up girl's basketball was dominant every year so to finally win it was a huge deal for our county," Stewart said. "In the moment (when we won it) I was just so happy. These girls were my best friends in the whole world. I was so happy with what I had accomplished with my best friends."
The Lionettes had a great player in Powell. In fact, the 1989 state champions produced four players who went on to play college basketball (Powell, Solomon, Reed, Stewart and Bissinger). They also had a group of players who knew their role and shared a common goal.
"Winning is all that mattered," said Tracy (Smithson) Hale. "I really just think about how everybody worked together as a team. Everybody had a role to play and everybody did their job and played a role in us winning a championship. We worked so well together and we all stepped up to achieve that goal."
In addition to special bonds and great team chemistry, players and coaches still remember the great following consistent with Cannon County basketball.
"Two things always stand out to me about that state championship season," Powell said. "One is just the caliber of players and people, my teammates and my friends. Two would be the community support. Say what you want about a small town but there is nothing like looking out the back of your bus going to the regional tournament and seeing the line of cars and all the headlights following the team. You could not ask for a better place to play basketball than Cannon County. Everybody was just so invested, not just the team and coaches, but also the community. The elation was shared by everyone when we won. There are few places where you can get that pure joy."
Stewart's mother, Gloria (Parker), was a standout performer at Cannon County who completed her career with 1,625 points - which still stands seventh on the all-time scoring list. In fact, Stewart finished just ahead of her mom with 1,809 career points. Stewart knew how much Cannon Countians cherish basketball.
"That's all everybody did, they went to the girls' game," Stewart said. "All I wanted to do was win at basketball. There was such community pride and support. It didn't matter where we played. Our fans packed the gym to support us. We wanted to win for them, too."
Coach Harris says support for Cannon County basketball was off the chart.
"And it still is," says Harris, who rarely misses a game home or away. "Our fans really supported us and followed us. The girls always wanted to win for the fans."
Fan support and competitive basketball have remained constants with Lionette basketball through the years, Parker said.
"I believe the expectations then are the same as now," Parker said. "You have the good players and the good seasons and the great fan support. It felt like when we didn't when we let everybody down but the support was always there."
Players remember little things that become big things like a special convoy back to Woodbury following the title win.
"I really don't know why this stands out but we had a police escort back into town and that was really neat," Solomon said. Taking that trophy back to Woodbury was a great thing for the community. As much as it is burned in my memory it is still in the fans' minds as well."
POWELL WAS GREAT
All championship teams seem to have a great player - not only that he/she scores and does it all on the court, but they also possess outstanding leadership and an ability to make those around them better.
Powell was great.
She was listed as one USA Today's Top 25 prep players as a junior. She was a two-time Miss Basketball winner and three-time finalist. She capped her career with 2,894 points - which is more than anyone to ever wear a Cannon County basketball uniform.
Powell was dominant, yet graceful, on the court.
She was the undisputable best player, not only in Cannon County, but one of the premier performers in the state. Powell also was amongst the most humble.
Powell was one of the biggest reasons her Cannon County teammates had such confidence in attaining championship status.
"You felt pretty invincible when you had Julie Powell on your team," said Solomon, now Solomon-James. "I always felt like we had Superwoman on our team. We all had so much confidence in her. She, along with us, would get it done. Playing with Julie was incredible. Selfishness never came into play. There were so many times in the huddle that Coach Harris would say, 'Get the ball to Julie.' There was never a look of frustration or anything. We knew we needed to do that. She was a great athlete and a humble person at the same time."
Stewart's presence as a freshman enabled Powell to play her more natural position as a small forward instead of power forward.
"I think I was just a piece of the wheel they needed because we had a strong nucleus returning (from 1988)," said Stewart (Stark)."
Stewart would go on to enjoy a record-breaking career at Lipscomb University. Learning from playing with Powell helped along the way.
"There was never any jealousy with Julie," Stewart said. "We all knew she was head and shoulders better than us. She was head and shoulders better than most anyone. We just had great chemistry. If you don't get along you won't win, especially with teenage girls. All I wanted to do was win."
It some minds the achievement is more remarkable today than it was then. Cannon County has a strong tradition in girls basketball and an equally great following; however, there is only one state champion.
Perhaps it is not that other teams have not stacked up. Maybe it is just that difficult to achieve success at the highest level of your sport. That's what makes the 1989 State Champions special.
"It is incredible to believe the girls have not won since," Powell said. "It tells you how hard it is."
THEY WERE DETERMINED
Cannon County had come close in 1987 and 88 before losing to powerful South Greene in the title game.
The Lionettes were determined they would not be denied in 1989.
"There was no external pressure to win the championship," Powell said. "It was more of an internal competitive pressure and we decided we were winning it in 1989, period! We were dedicated to doing it and we disciplined ourselves to do that. It was pride in our team and a commitment to winning (the state championship)."
So when the Lionettes survived the tough gauntlet that is the Region 4-AA Tournament, won their Substate game and reached the 1989 state tournament for a third straight year, guess who was waiting?
Yes, mighty South Greene.
The same team that derailed Cannon County's title hopes in 1987 and 88 was waiting for the Lionettes in the quarterfinals.
"When we realized we were playing them first I remembered them putting us out (the previous) two years and that added to our determination of moving forward in the tournament," Powell said.
It wasn't easy but Cannon County ousted the two-time defending Class AA state champions, 67-60, in overtime. Powell led the way with 29 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. Solomon added 11. Powell had seemingly produced the game winner late in regulation, but South Greene hit would of two free throws to force overtime. The Lionettes dominated the extra frame to capture the quarterfinal win.
"All I remember when we drew South Greene was, 'South Greene … again,!" Harris said. "I hated it because it was the first game of the tournament, especially after them beating us two years in a row. It was good to get that win behind us."
It was no easier in the semifinals, where the Lionettes faced west Tennessee power Gibson County. The game went to the wire - literally. In one of the more memorable plays in Cannon County state tournament history, Stewart fed Powell an unforgettable assist with less than five seconds remaining.
What made it memorable is Stewart had received a pass and was wide open in close proximity to the basket but she quickly passed it back to Powell with seconds frantically ticking away.
Powell buried the buzzer beater and the Lionettes survived with a 52-50 win and punched their ticket into a third straight title game.
"That was the biggest assist of my career," Stewart said. "Here I had a potential layup, but I knew better than to shoot that ball. I was just a gullible little freshman who tried to play hard. I knew Julie wouldn't miss."
Solomon led the Lionettes with 13, followed by King with 12 and Powell with 11 points and 10 rebounds. King scored eight of her 12 in the fourth quarter and the game on the line.
Cannon County faced East Tennessee's Happy Valley in the title game and controlled the game throughout on the way to a 51-46 championship win.
One could feel emotion building within the stands as minutes turned to seconds. Cannon County's elusive title was in hand.
Fans who were there remember it as though it just happened. So do players who produced a win of historical perspective and proved determination, work ethic, chemistry and a special bond can overcome all obstacles.