The Next Generation

Born of necessity, Biddy League champions the future

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By Stefan Cooper
Sports Editor
Blount Today

The moves, the vision, the sense of timing, they’re all there.

Shawn Wilson could very well be "the Next One." Maryville Biddy League has certainly produced a few through the years.

From current collegians Cait McMahan of Tennessee to Lee Humphrey of Florida, the brainchild of former Maryville High School athletics director Jim Campbell and former Rebel coach Rodney Nelson has more than surpassed the dreams of its creators.

"There have been some big-time players that have come through Biddy League," Nelson said.

The teams at Maryville High — with the Lady Rebels claiming the District 4AAA championship on Tuesday, the Rebels in the boys final on Wednesday — have been the intended and primary beneficiary of the league. Launched with Nelson’s arrival as coach in 1981, it’s always been so much more, though.

As McMahan, who starred at Heritage at the high school level, proved, the main objective has been to produce better basketball players.

"Our vision was that it would serve the community, not just Maryville," Nelson said.

The need for the league came from the Maryville City School system’s affiliation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, which prohibits school-sponsored athletic teams on the elementary level.

Other area systems weren’t constrained by similar rules. As their teams got better, Maryville got worse. There wasn’t even a recreational league to fall back on.

"There was no Parks & Rec (youth basketball league) at the time," Nelson said.

With Campbell’s urging and Nelson’s desire to build a feeder system to one day draw upon, the first Biddy League teams took the court 26 years ago, boys only, fourth through seventh grades. The first girls teams would follow three years later.

Former Lady Rebel coach Stephanie Thompson breathed life into those first girls teams. Management of the boys and girls leagues, respectively, have always been the responsibility of the high school’s two head coaches. When Thompson stepped down three years after the launch of the girls program, her successor at the high school, then-freshman coach Suzanne Singleton, became the league’s director.

Those early teams at the high school left much to be desired, Singleton said.

"We went through that transition of not having a winning season," she said. "Fundamentally, they’d come in (to the high school team) and couldn’t shoot."

One of the first things the league sought to instill was a sense of team, better to foster leadership in older players.
"When you get put on a team as a fifth-grader, you stay on that team," Singleton said.

As the league grew, skill level quickly climbed. The year she became coach at the high school, Singleton saw the groundwork she and Thompson had lain begin to yield results.

"That’s when we started to develop some consistency," Singleton said.

Players like former Lady Rebel Kelly Drinka would not only help make Maryville a district power, but, by reaching the Division I collegiate level, would enhance the Biddy League reputation for building skill. Soon, not only players destined for Maryville High were coming to the league for early instruction. Those destined for rival schools, like the record-setting McMahan, were filling its ranks as well.

McMahan would rewrite all of Heritage’s scoring records during an injury-shortened career. She would be named a high school Parade All-American as a Lady Mountaineer despite missing all but a handful of games her senior season.

"I tell you a funny story about her," Singleton said. "When she came in as a third-grader, she didn’t play in the girls side (of
Biddy League). She played in the boys side, and she was the best player in the league."

With success came growth. The first A-league teams, boys only, were comprised entirely of fourth- through seventh-graders. Eight teams, along with six B-division clubs, third- and fourth-graders, swelled the league’s ranks this winter, encompassing 145 players.

The girls side, with six upper level and four B-league teams, saw its numbers climb to better than 100.
The league’s popularity mandates a tryout to make one of its teams.

"People look at this as a competitive league," Nelson said. "It’s going to demand a little more."

Humphrey, who was named to the All-Final-Four team in helping Florida to a national championship a year ago, represents one of the league’s most notable products, but there’s been so much more, Nelson said.

Prior to taking a leave of absence to care for his ailing mother this season, Nelson’s teams at Maryville High reeled off nine straight 20-win seasons and seven district titles.

"The key has been, in the last eight or 10 years, is we’ve been able to create depth," Nelson said.

A host of Rebels have gone on to play at the college level after first getting their start in the Biddy League. Even a rival, former Alcoa star and current Tornado coach Micah Marsh, had his beginnings in the Maryville league.

It takes an army of volunteers to make it all go. Nelson and the league’s coaches served as officials the first 14 years. Now, people like league administrator Kim Anderson, whose son, Chase, last played in the league years ago, run each Saturday morning’s games at the high school with professional precision.

Some of the league’s coaches, like Reds skipper Joey Winders, have been with Maryville Biddy almost since its inception.
"We couldn’t do it without those parents taking their time to come in and coach and help out," said Singleton, who’s resumed directorship of the girls program this winter.

"I love organizing stuff like that," Singleton said. "I love the administration part. I love watching kids develop. I just love seeing (the high school program) getting bigger and better."

Only time will tell if Wilson is the next Lee Humphrey, but if Maryville Biddy League’s track record is any indication, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against it.

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