Even when the Lady Indians’ junior class were playing Junior Pro ball together, there was speculation about what they might someday accomplish in high school. Some said it aloud, others simply thought it without speaking it: This might be the next group to get Oneida basketball to Murfreesboro.

Trips to the Glass House on the campus of Middle Tennessee State were once routine for the Lady Indians. But, until Saturday night, it had been more than a decade since they had gotten there. On Saturday, those hopes and dreams were realized, as the Lady Indians defeated Cosby to punch their ticket to the state tournament. 

With the exception of sophomore Katelyn Stiltner, all of the Lady Indians’ usual starters — Chloe Terry, Jayden Thomas, Kendyl West and Harley Boyatt — are among that junior class. Another junior, Chelsea Newport, plays an important “sixth man” role.

There are two seniors who also play big roles on this Oneida team — Shay Buttram and Logan Lamb — along with another sophomore, Gracie Martin. But it is undeniably a junior-laden team, and all the folks who thought that 11th grade class might one day play a key role in getting Oneida to Murfreesboro have been proved correct.

As Coach Marv West said Saturday night, “It’s been a while.” It’s been a while since the Lady Indian program that was once second only to Clarkrange in state tournament appearances has made its way out I-40 west for high school basketball’s biggest stage in the State of Tennessee. West has spoken on multiple occasions in recent years about how he took the biggest games — the region championship games, the sub-state games — for granted early in his career. Back then, Oneida routinely went to Murfreesboro; at one point, the Lady Indians had advanced to the substate 11 consecutive seasons. 

Yes, it had been a while. The players from that 2005 team are wives and mothers now. This year’s players were just toddlers back then. No one could’ve known at the time that it would be those babies — some of them still in diapers — who would be the group to lead Oneida back again. But they hadn’t had basketballs in their hands too very long before some began to realize their potential. 

This year’s Lady Indians realized that potential through resilience and perseverance. They started the season 1-3, with losses to Class AAA powers Campbell County and Bearden, along with Class A bully Clarkrange. But after a second loss to the Buffaloes, and a 3-4 start, they reeled off an incredible 17 consecutive wins. And every time they’ve been beaten, they’ve battled back.

Sunbright snapped the winning streak by spoiling Oneida’s senior night, winning 44-37 in OHS Gymnasium on February 1. Oneida bounced back to completely dominate its arch-rival, Wartburg, by 31 points in the regular season finale.

Midway defeated a short-handed Lady Indians team in the District 3-A championship game, 61-55. Oneida bounced back to stun once-beaten and fourth-ranked Tellico Plains, 49-48.

Then came even bigger adversity, when Midway completely dismantled Oneida in the Region 2-A championship game, jumping to a 47-13 halftime lead en route to a 67-40 victory. Some — this writer included — wondered whether the Lady Indians could regroup and refocus after such a disheartening loss, with just 72 hours to prepare for a substate game in a hostile environment.

That answer was clear by tip-off of Oneida’s game in front of a raucous crowd in Cosby on Saturday night, and even more clear by the time the Lady Indians had completely shut down the Eagles’ offense to build a 13-point halftime lead.

This year’s junior class was expected to be a good group of players, and they’ve already achieved one of the loftiest goals in high school basketball: getting to the state tournament. And, yet, no one has to tell them: there are even bigger goals that are within their grasp.

Similarities: Oneida’s loss to Midway in the region championship game may have been disappointing, but one thing was immediately clear: region championship games aren’t the be-all, end-all. Sure, playing in front of your home crowd at substate is a beautiful thing, but as Cosby found out Saturday evening, playing at home hardly guarantees you a trip to Murfreesboro.

In fact, Oneida won the Region 2-A championship and earned that home substate game just two years ago, by defeating No. 6 Meigs County, then came up just short of defeating Hampton at OHS Gymnasium for a berth in the state tournament. Yet, the last time the Lady Indians made the state tourney, back in 2005, they did so after losing the region title game and having to go on the road — to Cloudland — to win a substate game and get to Murfreesboro.

In that regard, 2019 and 2005 have several things in common. In 2005, two teams from the Lady Indians’ district — then District 4-A — made it to the state tournament: Oneida and Coalfield. Oneida lost to Coalfield in both the district and region championship games (lost to the Yellow Jackets four times that season, in fact), but rebounded with a win on the road to get to state, while Coalfield won its home substate game over Unaka to get in.

This year, Oneida lost to Midway in both the district and region championship games (after defeating the Green Wave twice in the regular season), but rebounded with a win on the road to get to state, while Midway won its home substate game over North Greene to get in.

A Tough Draw: By virtue of blind luck, Oneida drew the team with the state’s best record — Loretto (31-1) — for the first round of the state tournament. 

Defeating the Mustangs to extend their season may sound daunting for the Lady Indians, but games are played on the court — not on paper. Just one week ago, there were two one-loss teams still alive in the State of Tennessee. One of them was that Loretto squad. The other was Tellico Plains. And we know how that ended: the Lady Indians stunned the Bears to keep their season alive and advance to substate. 

Yes, Loretto is very good on paper. But Oneida isn’t too shabby on paper in its own right.

From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column written by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.