Oh my!It’s been 40 years! Yep, 40 years since the 1973-74 Upson High School Yellow Jacket boys’ basketball team played for the State Class B State Championship. I was the coach of that wonderful team and even though time has faded some of the images of that season, I still have many great memories of that year and the outstanding group of young men who made up that squad.
Following the 1973 school year, the Upson County school system decided to close Yatesville High School and, at the same time, withdraw all county students who had been attending R.E. Lee Institute. The contract that the county had with the city to educate many county students had expired and was not renewed. Thus Upson High School was created with the campus located on Adams Street.
There was a large influx of former Lee students to integrate with those coming from Yatesville. Having been the boys’ basketball coach at Yatesville for two-plus seasons, I was named the coach at Upson. It was an exciting time for us as Ronnie Lowe came from Pike County to coach the football team with Jack Smith as an assistant and Bobby Alexander came from Yatesville to coach girls’ basketball and assist in football. This was in the middle of the Georgia High Association’s two-year reclassification period so we were assigned to Class B. The football team played a non-region schedule but the basketball teams played in Region 5B.
No one gave our basketball team much of a chance to make a splash in the 1973-74 season. We had some solid returning players from Yatesville, but we picked up only two contributors from Lee. Seniors Gary Gulledge, Isaac King, Steve Hicks, and Ormand Mitchell had gained valuable experience at Yatesville and James Seay and Carey Prater came from Lee’s B-team to help out. I really had no idea of how good we would be and could not envision the changes that would take place to enable us to go to the state finals.
We started out by winning our first four games before dropping a tough 57-56 loss to Crawford County in Roberta. Then we lost three of our next four, dropping games to West Point, Central-Carrollton and Greenville with a win over Central-Talbotton mixed in. So after a hot 4-0 start we were suddenly 5-4 at the Christmas break.
One of those changes that I mentioned above took place in the game against Central-Carrollton. Starting guard Gary Gulledge got in foul trouble in the first quarter and we had to sit him down early. Dudley Mallory, a senior, replaced him. Dudley had been a part of our team for three years and always worked hard in practice. There had always been a better player ahead of him and I had failed to give him a real chance to show what he could do in a game. Well, in the Central game he played well and scored 10 points and grabbed 4 rebounds. I was really impressed!
We didn’t play in a Christmas tournament, so I had plenty of time to think and involve Dudley more in our game plan during holiday practices. I decided to start him in our post-Christmas game against Harris County at the old Upson gym. It was a tough game against a very good Harris County team and guess who made the winning shot to give us a 62-61 win? Yep, Dudley hit a tough 16-foot jump shot as the clock ran out to give us the victory. For the night he was our leading scorer with 21 points.
Now you might be thinking that I was a bright coach to insert Dudley into the lineup. Nope! I was thinking how dumb I was for not noticing his ability and for not giving him a chance to play earlier. We might not have lost those four games before Christmas. Suffice it to say, Dudley started for the rest of the season and there is more to be revealed later.
We went on to finish the rest of our regular season schedule with a 11-2 record and won the last seven games of the season to finish the year with great momentum. Included in that was the winning of the Tri-County Tournament which was played in January in Manchester. It was, at that time, the longest running invitational tournament in Georgia. We finished the season with an overall 16-6 record. I was happy with our mark, but felt that we had lost a couple of games that we should have won. I guess all coaches feel that way.
Upson High, the team that nobody had ever heard of, was making a name for itself. The players were excited and the school was excited. The community was beginning to recognize that we existed and I must admit that the coach was happy and a little bit excited also, but there were still games to be played.
Spurring our late season rally was the insertion of two sophomores into the starting lineup. We decided to go with Roy Caldwell and Carey Prater at the forward positions and they gave us a more athletic team and a more physical team on the boards. These guys replaced Hicks and Mitchell and one of the highlights of the season for me was the attitude of these two seniors, who did not pout or get mad when they lost their starting positions. They gave us a senior presence off of the bench and contributed valuable points and rebounds. They encouraged Caldwell and Prater and helped them in any way that they could. Steve and Ormand continued to work hard in practice and were always ready when I called on them. They were team players and I will always respect them for their attitude.
So as we entered the sub-region tournament we had only two starters who had started before Christmas, King and Gulledge. This was a very different team. We had momentum and were ready for the tournament, but little did we know how exciting the rest of the year would be. I’ll tell you about all of the tournament action next week!