SEVIERVILLE — The New Center Rockets came up one victory shy of their ultimate goal, but a loss in the state title game wasn’t enough to put a damper on what was an outstanding and history-making season.
Representing East Tennessee as the Section 1 champion in the TMSAA class AA state tournament, the Rockets defeated Burns Middle School in a double overtime thriller, before ultimately falling to West Junior High School in the state championship game.
New Center’s run to the state tournament came on the heels of winning the 2AA East Tennessee sectional championship. After winning the regular season championship in area 2AA, a loss in the area tournament title game relegated the Rockets to a No. 2 seed in the sectional tourney.
In the sectional tournament semifinal against Robertsville, the winner guaranteed themselves a spot in the state tournament. Getting out of the gates quickly, Bryson Headrick and Jude Costner led the Rockets early with 8 and 4 points respectively, and New Center had a 16-7 lead after one quarter. It was in the final quarter that the Rockets were able to lock down defensively, only allowing three free throws in the period to the Rams, as they were able to retake the lead and finish off Robertsville by a final score of 37-32, securing their spot in the sectional championship game.
“In a Zoom meeting back in September we were informed that for this year, our section was going to be allowed to send both its champion and its runner up to the state tournament,” said assistant coach Doran Huskey, who also serves as the school’s athletic director.
“The state is split into four sections in three different classifications. The AA classification, Section 4, which is made up primarily of teams from the Memphis area, opted not to send a sectional champion this year, so the decision was made at the state level to allow our section to send its runner up as well.”
The sectional championship did not start well as the Rockets were down by 14 at one point in the first half, but managed to get the deficit down to just nine points after a Parker Newman 3-pointer right before halftime.
The Rockets came out of the break with an increased defensive intensity, better ball security and offensive execution, allowing them to storm back and take a slim lead in the third, before going to the fourth quarter trailing by one. The final six minutes saw the duo of Headrick and Costner again shoulder the scoring load, tallying a combined 12 of the Rockets’ 13 points in the quarter, and helping the Rockets claim the sectional title with a heart pounding 43-40 win.
“We talked a lot with the boys about the importance of ‘earning’ their spot at state,” said head coach Billy Ward. “We tried to stress the importance of not only winning the game, but also proving we deserved our spot in the final four.”
“Everybody contributed in some way to this victory. Obviously a lot of credit goes to our starters, many of whom had to play while in foul trouble, but I also can’t say enough about the efforts of some of our bench guys like Braden Huffaker, and Parker and Cooper Newman, who stepped in and gave us some big minutes when we desperately needed it.”
With the sectional championship secured, New Center became the first middle school boys team from Sevier County to go to the state tournament.
A semifinal matchup with Burns Middle School, the Section 2 champion, proved to be an intense, but low-scoring affair. The Rockets trailed early, but they shut out the Bobcats in the third, and took a 19-12 lead heading to the fourth quarter.
The roles were basically reversed in the final stanza, as Burns outscored the Rockets 8-1 in the quarter to tie the game at 20-all before the game went to overtime.
Burns finally broke the tie by striking first in overtime with a short jump shot and then adding two free throws to take a 24-20 lead. A deep 3-pointer from Owen Brooks with under a minute to go got the Rockets to within one. Following a quick foul, a made free throw by Burns left New Center with a 25-23 deficit, setting up an exciting final 20 seconds.
With approximately 8 seconds left, a Braden Huffaker three point attempt rimmed out, but on the ensuing scramble for the rebound, the ball was tipped into the hands of point guard Bryson Headrick, who launched a step back 3-pointer with four seconds to go that found the bottom of the net, giving the Rockets a one point lead with 2.5 seconds remaining. A half court heave at the buzzer by Burns was off the mark, and a raucous New Center crowd celebrated a comeback win that only seconds before had seemed an impossibility.
“That was as intense of a game as I’ve been involved in in a long time,” said Ward after the game. “The heart the boys showed and their refusal to quit when things looked bleak speaks a lot to their character, and just proves that they truly deserved to be here ... The fight and determination they’ve shown in these last few games is something I won’t forget for a long time.”
Unfortunately for the Rockets, the magic ran out in the state title game against West Junior High where they lost 51-39. New Center couldn’t get enough shots to drop through the hoop against a very talented and athletic Lions team.
“Obviously we’d like to have been able to get one more victory,” said Ward, “but at the end of the day we’re not going to let a loss in the state championship game ruin what has been such a great season. There were 125 days between the first day of tryouts back in October and the state championship game on February 13th and we were still playing on day 125.”