They Made Good Great: Excerpt

Chapter 1 - ‘We were ready to be a great team’

As basketball tales go, they don’t get much better than Hoosiers, the 1986 film that chronicles a small-town Indiana high school’s journey to the state basketball championship.

At first glance—especially in the world we live 50 years after the fact—it might be easy to pick out similarities between the fictional Hickory High School Huskers and the 1969-1970 Berrien High School girls team that earned the first state championship in the history of Berrien County sports. After all, Berrien is one of the smaller schools in Georgia, residing in class AA—now the second smallest of seven classifications in the state—and the Rebels and Lady Rebels have endured their share of disappointment in recent years.

The 1969-70 edition of the Rebelettes (they became the Lady Rebels in the 1990s), however, had more in common with the Milan High School team that won the 1954 Indiana state championship and served as the inspiration for Hoosiers.

With an enrollment of 161, Milan was indeed the smallest school ever to win the single-class state tournament in Indiana. But the Milan Indians were never underdogs in their championship season. In the previous season, they had advanced to the state semifinals and entered the 1954 tournament as one of the powerhouse teams with a 19-2 regular season record.

Like Milan, the Berrien High Rebelettes were poised for big things when the 1969-1970 season arrived. Berrien had won region titles and advanced to the state quarterfinals in the two preceding years. The Rebelettes returned four senior starters from the 1968-69 team that rolled to a 26-3 record, losing 40-35 to Wheeler of Marietta in the AA quarterfinals.

“We knew we were good. We had worked hard and we loved the game,” said Lenna Carey Tucker, a starting guard for Berrien who went on to play for the Southern Belles, one of the few women’s professional teams playing in an era when sporting opportunities were rare for women, at colleges and especially at the pro level.

“Every year, every game, we expected to win, and we all did our best to do that,” Carey Tucker said.

The Rebelettes indeed had high expectations for the 1969-70 season, but perhaps history tempered their belief. Though widely regarded as the most consistently winning team in South Georgia since Coach Stanley “Ramrod” Simpson arrived in 1961, a Berrien girls team had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the state tournament.

“Making it to state was the goal, not going undefeated or winning state,” recalled Mary Grace Bailey Faircloth, a starting forward on the team. “I didn’t think about going undefeated—not because we weren’t that good, but because the odds of going that far and not being beaten were not there. We knew we had a pretty good team, and Coach Simpson knew it, too. He pushed us real hard, and we came through.”

Unlike tiny Milan, Berrien played in AA, which in those days was the state’s second-largest classification. Berrien played in the AA classification throughout the 1960 and most of the 1970s, indeed well into the 1980s. With the exception of the nine Region 1-AA teams, scattered across the entirety of the state below Macon, every other AA team in the 1969-1970 season resided north of Macon, most in Atlanta and farther north. Though AA schools were few and far between in South Georgia during those years, Region 1-AA dominated the state tournament, having produced 14 of the previous 18 AA champions.

In a sense, Berrien had failed to uphold the region’s honor in the preceding two state tournaments, with their consecutive quarterfinal losses. Various fans recalled feeling like the eternal bridesmaid when tournament time came around.

Berrien entered the 1969-70 season on the heels of eight straight winning campaigns, a period in which they had compiled 158 wins against 42 losses. At home, where the stands came right down to the edge of the court and opposing teams could feel the breath of the Berrien fans, the girls had tallied 28 straight wins, the last loss coming to Northside Warner Robins, a sextet on their way to winning the state AA championship in 1967. Despite all those wins, however, the Rebelettes had little to show for it in their trophy case and had made it to the state tournament just three times in those eight seasons.

Simpson had produced consistently good teams throughout his career, but the 1969-1970 group of girls were the ones who turned good into great.

Throughout the decade, Berrien had seemed to get better and better. One great player on a team gave way to two great players the next year, and the level of talent and experience increased significantly as the decade progressed. As the victories piled up, the desire to play, and win, strengthened with each season.

“I just loved the game; I think everyone of us did,” explained Carey Tucker, who had moved from Florida to Enigma when her maternal grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. “We loved the playing, the physical part of it, and the winning. Practices were hard, especially when we lost a game, but we were always challenging ourselves to be better and better.”

So, too, did Simpson. Always hard-driving, the coach became even more of a taskmaster in his later years at Berrien, as the talent began to match his expectations, demanding and pushing his teams to ever higher levels of excellence.

No one would admit to it on record, but it appears he pushed none of his teams harder than he did the 1969-1970 edition of the Rebelettes.

It was an experienced, senior-laden team. The four returning starters included three seniors, Carey and fellow guard Peggy Barber, and forward Marla Brown, the team captain. Junior forward Donna Jernigan was the other returning starter. The other starters were Bailey at forward and Andrea Carter at guard, both of whom received extensive playing time the previous year.

On the bench were three more seniors, Jo Ann Langford, Sandy McMillan and Pat Williams, who would have started in almost any other year at Berrien or on most any other team Berrien played in the 1969-1970 season.

“Seldom do you see a team where you have six girls and several others sitting on the bench with that level of potential and talent,” said Debra Swain Prince, a sophomore guard on the team who, in her own words, “collected a lot of splinters” on the bench that year.

“They were exemplary players,” continued Swain Prince, who herself would co-captain the 1971-72 team to Berrien’s second state championship. “They went above and way beyond what they were called to do. We worked together as a team, all of us. I was a nobody, but we all had the same goal in regard to playing hard, working hard and working as a team. As individuals, those senior girls were just so talented. They had height, experience, everything going for them, and they were leaders, too. They were just extremely good ballplayers, with the commitment and willingness to do the hard work necessary to put it all together.”

Judy McNabb Walker, who would co-captain the 1972 state championship team with Swain, played on Berrien’s junior varsity team in the 1969-1970 season. She also attended every varsity game that season and came away impressed with “their heart and willingness to give 100 percent to the game.”

“There was so much character and drive on that team to give their very best, and I’m thinking about every single one of those girls,” McNabb Walker said. “You could feel their sisterhood, whether they were starting or sitting on the bench.”

Walker’s sentiment was echoed by many of the players on the team, even those who preferred not to be interviewed on record. The player’s talent and willingness to work hard, coupled with Simpson’s hard-driving ways and demanding expectations, laid the foundation for Berrien’s success in the 1969-70 season. But it was the girls’ teamwork and close bonds of friendship that propelled them to greatness.

“We got along so well; there was no jealousy between us,” Carey Tucker said. “We were ready to be a great team that season.”