But when Kristi Walling made a tough decision in 2017 to take over at Sullivan Central, the Lady Cougars’ basketball program continued to enjoy the fruits of a partnership that has spanned seven years.
After Friday’s stirring come-from-behind win over Elizabethton, the Lady Cougars are still undefeated in the Three Rivers Conference at 8-0, are 21-2 overall and are ranked No. 6 in Tennessee in Class AA. Both losses came against out-of-state competition.
It has been an exceptional season thus far, and Walling credits teamwork as the reason.
“One thing I’ve said all season, and I think it’s so important, the reason we are as successful as we are is because we are a team,” said Walling. “It’s not just one or two players. It’s five starters and the players coming off the bench. It’s a very unselfish team and everybody does the job they need to do. If someone gets shut down, someone else steps up.”
HOW IT BEGAN
Known as Kristi Moody in her days at Sullivan Central, she was one of the area’s best players. Earning a scholarship to King, she played in 117 games over four years and averaged 13.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a senior guard in 2008-09.
When her playing career was over, she wasn’t ready to give up on basketball.
“Coaching is something I always wanted to do,” Walling said. “Playing basketball was a big passion of mine. One of the reasons I got into teaching was I wanted a chance to coach.”
The first opportunity came at Holston Middle School for the 2011 season, and success came quickly. Walling led her team to the conference title and postseason tournament championship and within one game of reaching the middle school state sectional.
When Abbey Crawford, Peyton Sams and others walked in the door at Holston, Walling said she knew there was a chance for good things to happen.
“I always knew they were a special group,” Walling said. “Peyton, Abbey and Avery (Leming) all started as sixth-graders.”
Holston made it to the sectionals that season and lost in the first round. As seventh-graders, they went 31-1 and won the sectional. As eighth-graders, they went 29-0 and won the sectional again.
Walling bid her stars goodbye as they stepped up to the high school level, and she remained at Holston.
A TOUGH CHOICE
Crawford, Sams and Leming adjusted well to the high school level, helping Central go 19-14 and reach the Region 1-AAA tournament as freshmen.
And the future looked bright with Central set to move down to Class AA for the 2017-18 season. That’s when a door opened for Walling. But she had some thinking to do.
“It was something I went back and forth on,” she said. “I loved where I was, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to coach high school basketball.”
It was August 2017, and the clock was ticking.
“It was a last-minute decision to put in for it,” Walling said. “I talked with my family and decided it was something I wanted to try to do.
“I put my name in at the last second, and it just so happened I got it.”
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
Walling’s first Three Rivers game as a coach was against Sullivan South and the Lady Cougars lost. But they bounced back, winning 10 of their next 11 and capturing the conference title.
They won the District 1-AA championship and bumped off Grainger in the region before a tough 71-67 loss to Chuckey-Doak in the semifinals.
“It was a heartbreaking loss,” Walling said. “We were in the driver’s seat, but in the second half they came back with a veteran team and beat our young team. But I think it opened the girls’ eyes to what they could do for the program and what a special team they could be.”
Central ran away with the conference title last year but lost to Elizabeth- ton in the final league game to spoil an undefeated run. The Lady Cougars lost again to Elizabethton in the district semifinals, and the setback eventually forced a region trip to Grainger. Central lost 74-43 to the Lady Grizzlies.
“Last year we fell apart,” said Walling, whose team is 29-3 in Three Rivers play under her watch. “Basketball is a long season, and it didn’t go the way we expected at the end. It’s something we really focused on as a coaching staff this year. We had a meeting with the players, making a commitment we would finish it out right this year.
“I think the girls have responded very well. It’s really neat being a coach and seeing the kids mature each year,” she added.
“We have four seniors who have done an excellent job leading this team. We’ve set really high expectations for them, and I’m super proud of them.”
Walling gave a snapshot look at some of her top players:
Sams, guard — “She’s a leader on the floor and sees things we don’t see on the sideline.”
Crawford, post, who has signed a Division I scholarship to play at Wofford — “She is a great post player with great moves and runs the floor extremely well.”
Leming, guard — “Always a good shooter, she has really improved her overall game for us.”
Macy McClellan, guard — “An offensive threat, she has stepped up as one of our best defenders.”
Jaelyn West, post — “A sophomore, she is starting to hit her stride. She has a bright future.”
Parker Hurd, guard — “She plays the sixth-man role extremely well. I never have to question her effort.”
Emma Niebruegge, guard — “Our backup point guard, sometimes we put her and Peyton out there together.”
Katie Horne, guard — “She’s a great role player for us.”
Also contributing to the Lady Cougars’ success this season have been Allison Lambert, Noemi Morales, Kylie Harrison and Marleigh Pendleton.
To get further than last season, Sullivan Central will have to take care of business in the district and then tame a very tough region.
Walling said the little things will matter.
“I think we just need to fine-tune the details,” the coach said. “Small things make a big difference, especially in big games.”