In the 30-odd years that prep basketball has been a primary source of my employment over the long winter months, we’ve occasionally seen pockets of greatness amid large gulfs of mediocrity.
You can almost count the magic moments of Chattanooga prep basketball on one hand – Dorsey Sims’ Riverside dynasty, Venus Lacy leading the Brainerd Lady Panthers, Doug Mosier’s back-to-back trips to the state finals (one title) with K.K. Mikes and the City High Dynahs, Robert High’s three state titles with the Brainerd boys. Those moments shine like a lighthouse beam piercing a stifling fog.
But there’s a very good chance that greatness and Chattanooga-based prep basketball are about to be mentioned in the same breath once again.
And to top it off, it’s a school that most Chattanooga prep basketball fans couldn’t even find with a map: Hamilton Heights Christian Academy.
Since the grade 9-12 school was founded by headmaster Duke Stone amid the chaos that surrounded the (first) collapse of Hamilton Christian Academy, Hamilton Heights occupies a small part of a compound on Hickory Valley Road, close to everything, yet secluded and largely ignored.
Except on the basketball court.
Both the Hamilton Heights girls and boys teams are coming off the biggest and best years in their brief history.
And in many ways, their 2016-2017 seasons already figure to surpass all of their previous accomplishments. For the record, the girls are currently 18-1, the boys 18-5.
“We did not set out to became a national program,” Stone recalls. “We had to change our vision of what the program was going to be. Several years ago, we knew we had a decision to make.
“We either had to scale back our programs and be just another one of many local church schools – or we could we could go full force,” Stone explains. “We decided that since no school in Tennessee was attempting a national program, that would be the way we would go.”
“If people want to call us a basketball factory, that’s their right,” says Zach Ferrell, the boys coach who took over the program in August of 2013. “We’re very excited about the opportunity we’ve been given. People can have their own opinion. What I know is that our students attend class from 8 until 3 and are required to do their homework each night.”
But when the members of the Hawks basketball teams, boys and girls, aren’t doing classwork or homework, they are building the reputation of Hamilton Heights far beyond that of any program in Chattanooga history. You’d have go up the road to consider the Bradley Central Bearettes of coach Jim Smiddy to find a nearby program that has earned such national regard.
And how to they do it? The first answer is simple: They are not part of the TSSAA.
An archaic, good-ole-boys organization that feels it has achieved something by holding its state football championships in a sterile metal stadium with outdated Astroturf in Cookeville and its wrestling championships in a cow palace, the school had nothing to gain by joining the TSSAA.
However, as an affiliated institution, it can play TSSAA schools on those rare occasions when a member school dares to take them on.
This year, only McCallie is playing the Hawks, hosting them in the first round of the Dr. Pepper Classic on Feb. 3. Perhaps, the fact that Hamilton Heights went 10-0 against TSSAA teams last season, including winning the local Best of Preps tournament, has something to do with that.
To get a better example of where Ferrell’s program is situated nationally is to consider this past weekend’s schedule.
While the girls had Saturday off, the boys boarded a bus to Dayton, Ohio, to face prep national power IMG Academy in the Flyin’ to the Hoop event. They were a 70-57 loser in that one, only their fifth loss of the year (IMG is 17-1),. But before the Hawks make it home, they are being joined by Coach Keisha Hunt’s girls team to participate in the Music City Classic in Nashville, facing powerful Providence Day of Charlotte.
They actually have a home game on Saturday against Legacy Charter, a Greenville, South Carolina school with a similar schedule and mission statement. Making it a doubly rare occasion, the girls will play their only home game this season out of close to 40 games.
“By the time the season is over, we’ll have played in nine different states. Oh, and plus Canada,” says Hunt, niece of the school’s founder and the girls head coach since 2005. “It’s the bad part of this kind of program. But local schools have been part of our program’s growth.
“At first, we’d just get beaten by them,” continues Hunt, who moved from New Orleans to Chattanooga to become the team’s assistant coach two weeks ahead of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “For different reasons, scheduling them is not working out at this time. They’ve been part of the process of us getting better.”
To that end, they played (and lost to) Bradley Central last year, and held a scrimmage against the undefeated Bearettes this season.
“We’re open to playing anyone around here,” Ferrell adds. “If they want us, they can get us.”
Mystery and myths
Because Hamilton Heights is a mystery, if not a legend of near-mythical proportions, to many local schools, there are plenty of misconceptions about just what the heck they are.
Misconception No. 1: If you have a good player locally, you’re at risk of having Hamilton Height spirit them away.
Not only is that wrong, it goes against one of the school’s mission statements.
“We are not out to raid local programs,” Stone explains, pointedly. “Our policy is that, once a student has begun ninth grade at his or her high school, they are off-limits to us. But if they are entering the ninth grade, they’re certainly someone we’d consider. We don’t want that reputation.”
The Hamilton Heights girls, who earned some notoriety earlier this year when they added Kamilla Cardosa, a 6-foot-6 freshman out of Brazil, to their ranks, actually have four local players on their varsity roster. But that’s more than they’ve had in a while, Hunt says, and two are her own daughters.
“Some years we’ve had all international players,” Hunt says.
Misconception No. 2: The school is merely for the absolute elite.
While their mission statement is to never exceed having 75 students enrolled on a given year, it’s as elitist as it sounds. Stone and his coaches all point out that the school’s tuition is the lower of any Chattanooga area private school.
“We let people come to us,” Hunt says. “We turn down a lot of people,” adds Stone, whose duties including handling enrollment (aka recruiting).
Misconception No. 3: Hamilton Heights’ national reputation is highly overrated.
This was disproven while I was writing this story.
Junior Jazmine Massengill, a 6-0 guard, committed to the Tennessee Lady Vols. One recruiting service has her ranked the nation’s No. 13 junior.
“She had been offered by every SEC school,” Hunt adds. The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that Massengill’s junior classmate, Elizabeth Balogun, who is ranked 15th nationally, is also being recruited by Tennessee.
Her fabulous freshman, Kamilla Cardosa, has already been offered by Ohio State.
“She’s probably not through growing,” says her coach. Hunt’s youngest daughter, Treasure Hunt (yes, her real name) has already received her first scholarship offer as a freshman – from Dawn Staley, legendary head coach from SEC power South Carolina.
Much ado about Ado
From the onset of the program, when David Stephenson (now head coach for both the men and women’s teams at Georgia Northwestern Community College) coached both boys and girls, Hamilton Heights has made a priority of getting its graduates college scholarships. But in the high-octane world of Division I recruiting, Abdul Ado put the Hawks on the map.
A 6-foot-10 native of Nigeria, Ado moved to America after his freshman year. He played for three seasons for the Hawks, but got many more eyeballs on him by playing AAU ball in Memphis with two of his Hamilton Heights teammates. At its peak, Ado’s recruiting totaled 27 firm offers before he opted for Mississippi State of the SEC.
But in November, the NCAA clearinghouse ruled Ado ineligible because of transcript problems pertaining to his freshman year in Nigeria. Now a manly 6-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Ado was eligible to begin practice this semester after passing enough credit hours in the fall, but he will not be eligible to play until next season.
But most of the international players arrive at Hamilton Heights for their freshman year. The first was a girl from Brazil, an eventual honors graduate who is now practicing law in her homeland.
A year later, there were two more players from Brazil and another from the Republic of Georgia. Their arrival led to the fateful meeting of Stone and his coaches and the commitment to give international players the exposure their talent warrants.
The current boys roster includes natives of Mali, Nigeria, Canada and the United States. Their 38-game regular season has them traveling to eight different states with trips to South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky in addition to this past weekend’s trip to Ohio.
Ferrell’s varsity program is known as the Gold Team, while assistant coach Trey High, a nephew of Brainerd’s legendary coach, oversees the Navy, or junior varsity, program. Former University of Tennessee football player Chris Walker is Ferrell’s other assistant.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve had five players get full scholarships and four-year schools, and two get two-year scholarships. We just had our first signee with UTC (Joan Duran), a Dominican Republic native that SCORE International was able to get over here.”
The obvious by-product of the influx of all this talent is success on the court. Not part of any conference, Hamilton Heights is one of a number of unaffiliated schools who play in the NISAA Division I tournament in Dayton, Tennessee.
Each of Ferrell’s first two years, his team was a first-round lost. Last season, Hamilton Heights claimed the championship with a 30-point victory in the finals.
But even that win did not get the Hawks to the ultimate goal.
“ESPN sponsors the National High School Invitational at Madison Square Garden,” Ferrell explains. “But only the best four teams in America get that invitation.”
Hunt’s girls program, likewise, is coming off its most successful year, a 29-win season against comparable competition to the boys program. In addition to the scholarship offers to each of her two talented juniors and freshmen, the Lady Hawks have two seniors who will be playing somewhere next season – Hunt’s daughter, Amber Hunt, and CeeCee White, a transfer from Walker Valley.
“Being number one is our goal. New York City is a goal of ours, too,” Hunt says. “We’ve always wanted to crack the top 25 in (prep) rankings; last year we were 26th. This season, we’ve been in the top 10 all season long.”
In her eight seasons coaching at Hamilton Heights, the coach admits that she feels she’s gotten the knack of coaching elite players.
“I think it’s one of the big reasons we’ve been successful,” Hunt adds. “Many times, when you have high-level players, sometimes coaches are afraid to coach them. They’re afraid if they press too hard, they’ll run them off.”
She also has all the confidence in the world in her assistant coaches – her father, James Stone, and oldest daughter, Raven Ray, whose number has been retired by the school. Keeping with the family theme, Hunt was originally hired by her brother, Shawn Stone, who she replaced as head coach after three seasons.
Even though the school, which is nominally 60 percent local students and 40 percent international, only has 65 enrolled this year in grades 9-12, there’s a full education to be had. That goes double for the international students, Hunt explains.
“Most of the girls who have come to the states and gone to school here, end up staying here,” the coach says.
“Hamilton Heights is an amazing opportunity for local kids as well,” headmaster Stone adds. “But we will never get bigger than we are now.”