There was a time when region championships and substate appearances came like clockwork for Oneida.
The school’s girls basketball program was something of a Class A bully in East Tennessee in the 1990s and early 2000s, repeatedly representing the district in Tennessee high school basketball’s version of the Sweet 16. It was easy to take it for granted. In fact, Lady Indians head coach Marv West — who began his coaching tenure near the end of that remarkable run — said as much twice last week.
After his team advanced to the substate with a win over Wartburg in the Region 2-A semifinals, and again after the Lady Indians upset No. 6 Meigs County to earn the region crown, West pointed out that he took success for granted early on. His high school coaching career began with back-to-back substate appearances.
“I didn’t always appreciate where we were,” West said Wednesday, after his team surprised Meigs County in the Region 2-A championship game. “I do now.”
Oneida won a remarkable six consecutive region championships in the 1990s, when the program was guided by such players as eventual University of Tennessee standout Brynae Laxton, Clemson star Kerri Boyatt, the Watson sisters — Ella and Paula — and Jodi Potter. Even more astounding, the Lady Indians made 14 consecutive substate appearances.
But it all ended in 2004. Even though Oneida won the district championship again that season, the Lady Indians were knocked off by Wartburg in the region semifinals, ending the string of consecutive substate berths.
Oneida would get back to the substate in 2005, and even advance to the state tournament, despite losing to Coalfield four times over the course of the regular season and the postseason. And then the Lady Indians would go a long 12 years without getting back.
Until this year.
Although Oneida was unable to get past Hampton and earn its first state tournament berth since that 2005 season, the Lady Indians were able to get back to the substate game, and they did it in much the same fashion as they did when they were terrorizing Class A girls basketball in the ‘90s and early ‘00s: overcoming odds and proving naysayers wrong.
Oneida finished third in the District 4-A tournament, but then three times knocked off higher seeds en route to its first region championship since 2002. First, the Lady Indians took to the road and knocked off District 3-A runner-up Tellico Plains. Then they ended the season of District 4-A champion Wartburg. Finally, Oneida stunned Meigs County in the Region 2-A championship game, sending the Tigers to upper East Tennessee to face the state’s top-ranked team, South Greene, on Saturday.
In truth, the road back did not begin with this season’s run to the substate. It actually began in 2013, when this year’s seniors were just eighth graders. That was when Oneida began a string of four consecutive appearances in the District 4-A championship game.
It wasn’t that Oneida hadn’t gotten to the district title game during its decade-long postseason drought. The Lady Indians had advanced to the championship game in both 2007 and 2009. But, both times, Oliver Springs was standing in the way of a championship. And each season was followed by a disappointing season that ended shy of a berth in the region tournament.
The script began to flip — began to return to the “old days” — in 2013, when the string of consecutive district championship appearances began.
It took a while for Oneida to get over the hump. Wartburg upset the Lady Indians in 2013, winning the tournament on its home court as a four-seed. Oliver Springs upset Oneida in 2014. The Lady Indians may have gotten their revenge in 2015, but inclement weather forced the cancelation of the championship game after Oneida advanced to again face Oliver Springs.
Finally, in 2016, the Lady Indians broke through with their first district title in 12 years, knocking off Wartburg to earn the prize.
This year’s seniors were denied an opportunity to advance to the district championship game each year of their careers; Sunbright ended Oneida’s streak in the district semifinals.
But the six seniors did something even better: winning the school’s first region championship in 15 years and providing Oneida fans an opportunity to experience a substate game at the gymnasium that hosted so many sectional games when it was still new in the ‘90s and early ‘00s.
Tim Smith, the “voice of the Indians,” remarked Saturday that it had been “a long time” since OHS Gymnasium was filled to capacity as it was when Hampton visited for the sectional game. And there was a buzz around town that had been absent for well over a decade.
Most likely, this year’s players don’t even realize the magnitude of what they accomplished. They’re too young to remember the days when the program was dominant.
But their parents remember. In fact, some of them were a part of that run of dominance for Oneida that began more than two decades ago. In the run-up to Saturday’s semifinal game, there was much reminiscing about a time when the Lady Indians played such games regularly.
And Oneida coach Marv West certainly remembers. That’s why he sent those six seniors — Baylee Thomas, Sidney Dishman, Emily Brooks, Raven Wright, Millie Newport and Brooklyn Hutson — to interview with Smith and WBNT radio after the semifinal win over Wartburg. There was still a region title game to be played 48 hours later, but West wanted his squad to take time to enjoy what they had accomplished; to “soak it all in,” as he said.
Because if anyone understands just how difficult it is to keep winning until you’re one of the 16 teams left standing, it’s West and all the players who played between 2005 and 2017.
And that’s why, even though this season ended in disappointment with a substate loss to Hampton, it was a season of magnitude. Twenty-three wins and a region championship are never going to be anything worth overlooking. But this year’s players will be remembered as the team that finally broke through again — the team that returned the Oneida program to once-familiar territory.
Only time will tell if Oneida can equal the decade-plus of dominance it enjoyed in Class A basketball in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. But if it can, it will be largely because this year’s seniors showed their underclassmen how it’s done.
And that’s worth celebrating, even in the aftermath of defeat.