By Jim Freeman
JACKSBORO, TN (WLAF) – As the Campbell County Cougars prepare for their district tournament semi-final game on Saturday night, memories are resurfacing of the last time CCHS claimed the district tourney crown; 1996. Obviously, there’s a semi-final win to be had before the 2022 Cougars can even begin thinking about a district tournament championship. But that won’t keep us Cougar fans from thinking about the what ifs.
“The 1996 team was a most extraordinary bunch that kept improving all year and had a fantastic finish,” said legendary Campbell High Coach Rick Hunley. Hunley coached the Lady Cougars in their glory days of the 1980s and led the Cougars to unprecedented heights in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“We just had a no-give-up attitude. The previous year, my junior year, we went 26 and 3, won the district that year, so coming off a great season and hearing people say we couldn’t go back-to-back years was enough motivation for us,” said Anthony Walden, a key member of the ’96 title team. Interestingly enough, Walden’s youngest son, Nate, is a member of this year’s Cougar team.
The 1996 district tournament was played at Halls with the first games, for boys and girls, being on Monday and were played through Friday with Wednesday being a no games day. John McNeeley, one of the leaders of that memorable 1996 squad, recalls the team had, at least, a split with most of its district opponents except Karns which swept Campbell. “We had Central on Monday, and we were able to beat them by double-digits even though they had just beaten us the week before at Central,” said McNeeley.
Hunley remembers, like it was this morning, that his Cougars were 16 & 10 coming off district titles in 1994 and 1995 though he felt like that team went into the tournament thinking it could pull some upsets. It did. “We won four straight games in five nights at the ’96 tournament after coming in as the 6th seed. Those Cougars defeated third seeded Karns on Tuesday, then the second seed, Oak Ridge, on Thursday followed by the championship night win on Friday over Clinton, the number one seed,” said Hunley. Clinton fielded a very athletic team that featured two all-state players as he thinks back.
Campbell was led by 5th year senior Ben Berry. “Ben missed his freshman year when he lost his father, and he ended up needing more credits to earn his degree at the end of his senior year. I appealed to the TSSAA, and they granted Ben a fifth year,” said Coach Hunley.
McNeeley hit a baseline jumper for the win at the end of regulation in the Tuesday night game to keep what was going to be a fantastic finish on course. Hunley remembers that it was Karns that night, but McNeeley recollects it was Powell. Either way, it wound up in the CCHS win column and qualified the Cougars for the region and vaulted them into the semi-finals.
“The similarity between my ’96 team and this current team and even my brother Brent’s team that went to the sub-state in 2001 is that we all started the seasons off on a slow note, but kept pushing each game to get better. By the end of the season, no one wanted to play us. We peeked at the the right time much like Campbell County is doing this year, and no one wants to play this team right now,” said Walden.
Jim Chadwell was Hunley’s assistant coach and served as the head coach of the JV Cougars. “Jim was actually the most important part of the 1996 championship team. He was a great motivator,” Hunley noted.
“Our offense ran through Ben (Berry), and we had great competitors on our bench. When they spelled our starters, they kept us in the game,” said Hunley. The long time coach rattled off Berry’s tournament stats over four games; 109 points, 69 rebounds and tourney MVP. “Ben had the best hands of anyone I ever coached. When no one else could catch it, Ben caught it,” added Hunley.
South-Doyle won the region opener by four over Campbell at Central as the Cougars played without Berry that night. “Ben was sick, and we still nearly won the game,” said Hunley.
The 2022 team is automatically in the regional tournament by virtue of finishing second in the district regular season. “They’re going to be dangerous in the district and regional tournament. I’m very proud of Nate and this team and the coaches. You can see improvement every game. It’s going to be a fun tournament, and it would be nice to see Nate and this team win the tournament like we did in 1996,” said Walden. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 02/17/2022-6AM)