WARTBURG — As the final seconds of Friday's semifinal win over Coalfield ticked away, Oneida ladies' basketball coach Marv West was calm and cool. He offered high fives to a couple of players leaving the court as he headed to the back of the line for the postgame handshake.
Minutes later, he headed over for his postgame radio interview — with his children en tow — where he was immediately about the business at hand: finding a way to beat Wartburg in the District 4-A championship game. His team's resounding victory over Coalfield was a nice accomplishment, but it was over. Done with. Time to move on.
There was some reflection on the game just completed — "Jessi (Morgan) played her best game of the season," and "Micah (Stephens) has really bought into the style of basketball I'm trying to teach" — but mostly the focus was on Wartburg.
Coach West acts like he's been here before. And he has.
When the Lady Indians tip off against Wartburg at 8 p.m. Monday, they will mark their first district championship game since 2009. Which was also West's last season on the bench before taking a 3-year hiatus from coaching to devote more time to his children.
It has been a difficult few seasons for this Lady Indian squad. Four coaches in as many years. Only one winning season in the last three. In 2010, Oneida didn't make it out of the district — almost unheard of for a program that has been among the most successful East Tennessee Class A programs over the past three decades.
There were some indications that the program was on its way back in 2012, when first-year head coach Amanda Jackson guided the team to 19 wins and a near-upset of top-seeded Tellico Plains in the Region 2-A tournament. But the season ended in turmoil. Jackson stepped down under pressure. The players were angered by what was perceived as unfair treatment of their coach.
With nearly every major contributor from that 19-win season graduating, things could have been much different when the new season began if the transition hadn't been handled the right way.
But it just so happened that school system administrators were able to persuade West to return to the bench. And in him, Oneida tapped a wealth of experience and tradition of success. West's first goal was to not rush his new team through the transition process.
"The girls were very fond of (Coach Jackson)," West would later say. "I let them have time to grieve, for lack of a better word, and then we went to work. I felt like we were able to gain each other's trust."
With two senior captains returning from the 2012 squad, along with that team's two leading scorers and a freshman point guard with a promising future, West and the Lady Indians went to work in the summer. Camp was successful, but West cautioned last fall that his team was still learning.
"I hope to be competitive by February," West said days before his team opened the season with a trip to tiny Washburn, Tenn.
As it turned out, the Lady Indians were competitive well before then. When they opened district play in December with back-to-back wins over Wartburg and Oakdale, there seemed to be indications that a return to past success was at hand.
Two months later, Oneida was putting the final touches on a 20-win season — its first since 2007 — and West was voted by his fellow coaches as the district's coach of the year.
And the team seems to be peaking at just the right time. Friday's 51-36 win over Coalfield was one of Oneida's most impressive performances of the season.
Still, West knows that there is much work to be done. Wartburg will enter Monday's game as the No. 4 seed in the district, but it is a Bulldog team that looked impressive in a win over No. 1 Oliver Springs on Friday.
The last time the Lady Indians faced the Bulldogs on their home court, Jan. 18, Wartburg appeared to have the game in hand before Oneida pulled out an improbable victory at the end. Wartburg missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation that could have made it a two-possession game with under a minute remaining. A 3-point shot at the other end by Morgan proved to be the winning basket, and Oneida escaped with a 36-34 win.
The teams' first meeting, in Oneida on Dec. 11, was no easier. Wartburg missed a point-blank look at a layup at the end of regulation that would have forced overtime, and the Lady Indians escaped with a 41-39 win.
Oneida has come up empty in their last two district championship games in Wartburg. In 2009, West's team defeated Coalfield in the semifinals but fell to Oliver Springs three nights later, 64-58.
Two years earlier, West's team defeated Oakdale in the semifinals but lost to Oliver Springs in the championship game, 44-35.
The Wartburg court has not been kind to the Lady Indians in the postseason. In 2006, Oneida entered the tournament as the district's top team, but was upset by Coalfield in the first game, a semifinal matchup in Wartburg. In 2005, the Lady Indians went all the way to the state tournament in Murfreesboro before falling to University School of Jackson. But in the district championship game in Wartburg, the Lady Indians had fallen to Coalfield, 56-50.
Oneida's last district title came in 2004, a 42-37 win over Coalfield in Rockwood. This year's players were in grades one through four that year.
The Lady Indians' last meeting with Wartburg in the district championship game came in 2002, a 71-62 loss to the Bulldogs in Coalfield.
From 2002-2009, Oneida was in the district championship game six out of eight times. Earning wins in the game were not as easy. With the exception of 2004, the Lady Indians did not emerge victorious from the title game. Oneida twice advanced to the state tournament during that stretch (2003 and 2005) but, incredibly, did not win the district either time.
With their return to the district title game this year, the Lady Indians are ready to start a new tradition of title game appearances. But this time they have an opportunity to accomplish the championship win that was so elusive over the previous decade.