published Friday, February 10th, 2012

Eighth-graders helping Hamilton County high school teams

The term "fifth-year senior" is associated with college athletics. The term "senior playing for a fifth year" could be rapidly becoming associated with TSSAA ahtletics, at least locally.

Some schools in Hamilton County are experiencing an influx of eighth-grade talent at the varsity high school level this winter. More than a few eighth-graders' names have appeared on basketball rosters, and many of those players are making impacts.

According to the TSSAA handbook, the first among a few requirements for an eighth-grade student to be eligible to participate for a member high school is that he or she must be enrolled there. That means only schools where the middle and high schools are together can this be possible.

Arts & Sciences is the pace-setter locally with five eighth-grade basketball players on its two high school varsity teams. Because boys' coach Mark Dragoo listened to his son and assistant coach, Zach, about what JaVaughn Craig could offer, he's been a starter since mid-December.

"Zach saw him play a lot in middle school and said, 'He can already play in high school,'" Dragoo said. "I said, 'Let's go ahead and do it.'"

Craig has settled in since his first action. Arts & Sciences' first two games were against local powers Howard and Brainerd.

"I was kind of nervous," Craig said. "I was scared I was going to mess up, playing in a big game."

Eighth-grader Shunn Moorer has played in a reserve rols for the CSAS boys, and Dragoo said Todd Lansden is being promoted to varsity for postseason play. Katurah Billen and Samantha Maffett have been key contributors as eighth-graders for the Lady Patriots.

Many schools don't have a choice of promoting eighth-graders. Robert High is the longtime boys' coach at Brainerd, which didn't have a freshman class the 1989-90 school year.

C.J. Black, Ced Dozier, Johnny Goodman and Mark Smith are a few who played plenty for him as freshmen, and might could've sooner.

"Some schools, I don't want to say they have an advantage, but maybe they do," High said. "If the middle school is in their building, eighth-graders can actually play for the high school team. Then by the time they get to ninth grade, they've got a year's experience on everybody else."

Marques Tipton is a starter for Brainerd this season. Last year at Dalewood Middle he was 6-foot-1 and averaging about 20 points and eight rebounds per game. He's averaging eight points, six rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game for the Panthers.

"I had to get used to the high school game," he said. "The players are more physical, and they're better. I need to improve on my ball-handling skills and get stronger."

Said High: "No doubt he could've played some for us last year."

Younger girls needed

This current flow of eighth-grade talent is more widespread among girls' teams. Boyd-Buchanan coach Karen Sewell, whose high school team features two eighth-graders, said it's likely because girls at that age mature faster than boys, both physically and emotionally.

Sewell said she brought in eighth-graders because six high schoolers were all who came out in the beginning. Marisa McCalla and post player Maddie Wright have proven to be valuable team members.

"I think it's better for them to be playing with girls their own age," Sewell said. "We just didn't have the numbers. The first couple of games they were a little bit shell-shocked. They've learned to just fight back."

McCalla said she and Wright were told they would be moving to the high school team even before middle school tryouts. McCalla has started all 22 games and averages six points, four rebounds and a steal per game.

"At first I had doubts," she said. "I was just coming out of volleyball and I was kind of lazy. Finally they said they were short on girls. I remember I was nervous that first game. I couldn't really do anything. I'm better now."

Signal Mountain's Aryn Sanders finished her middle school career Dec. 10, the same day her high school career began. Sanders helped the younger Lady Eagles complete a 17-0 championship season, then through prearrangement was at Baylor two hours later when the high school team took on Soddy-Daisy in the Hoops for Hope Classic. Her first shot was from behind the arc, and it went in.

"I was scared," Sanders said. "The girls were a lot bigger. It's just a faster-paced game."

By her third game she was in the starting lineup. Despite missing the first seven of the Lady Eagles' 22 games, she leads them in points (248) and steals (54).

"I think Aryn has shown the upperclassmen that everybody's going to have to take their game to the next level," Signal Mountain coach Jason Hill said. "I think she's pushed some other girls to perform, rather than be relaxed with what they were doing."

Lightweight wrestlers

Historically in winter it's been more prevalent seeing eighth-graders in high school wrestling starting lineups than on basketball teams.

"I think that's just because it's a sport with weight classes," Baylor wrestling coach Ben Nelson said. "Because of that, some younger kids are able to play on a team at the varsity level."

Nelson added that eighth-graders who have the skill to break into a team's lineup generally do so in the lighter weights.

This year three eighth-graders have had notable seasons locally in the 106-pound weight class. Michael Murphy and James Westbrook of Division II wrestling rivals Baylor and McCallie already have had some classic battles. Chattanoga Christian's Trent Wallise is 16-6 with 12 pins.

Like wrestling, cross country has proven to be a sport where eighth-graders can excel. Lacking in size is a big benefit.

Size matters, however, in basketball.

"I think in this day and age, with all the resources out there to help you get better -- AAU clinics, personal coaches, shooting machines, etc. -- you're going to see players getting better at a younger age," Hill said. "If you go out and see some young kid playing basketball for a high school somewhere, you can bet it's because they had the motivation and the heart to get better."

about Kelley Smiddie...

Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com.

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