Ready to roll

Smoky Mountain Mamas head to Frisco to defend national title

The Smoky Mountain Mamas women’s basketball team held its collective breath when forward Cheryl Brown Merritt twisted an ankle near the end of Tuesday’s practice.

Injuries are not taken lightly on a team where everyone on the roster has seen their 55th birthday. Neither are they feared.

“I took an elbow once,” Neak Merriman Alexander, Everett High Class of 1965, said, “and the girl caught it just right and knocked both my front teeth out.”

This is definitely not a relaxing nine holes at the club.

“You play as rough as the other team gives it until the refs start calling it,” Alexander said.

Merritt, Everett Class of ‘72, would be fine. She iced the ankle briefly before leaving, showing few signs of discomfort. The Smoky Mountain Mamas have a title to defend next week in San Francisco, and the former Lady Bulldog wouldn’t miss this trip for the world.

The 2009 Summer National Senior Games are scheduled for Aug. 1-15 at various sites in the city by the bay. The Smoky Mountain Mamas, then competing in the 50-up age group, were crowned national champions at the ‘07 Games in Louisville, Ky. The Senior Games are held every two years.

The Smoky Mountain Mamas are moving to the 55-ups in their quest for a repeat. It won’t be easy, but they’re ready.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Alexander said.

The Tennessee champions also have one of the state’s all-time top scorers leading the charge.

Darlene Talbott Parton concluded her high school career at Porter in the early 1970s as one of only a handful of Blount County prep stars - male or female - to surpass 3,000 points. She was named most valuable player of the 1969 state tournament in the years before classification, a remarkable feat considering the Lady Panthers didn’t even win it that season. Porter, with titles in ‘59, ‘63 and ‘67, finished third.

Parton, then a sophomore, was an overwhelming choice for MVP after establishing a new state tournament record for scoring.

There were few opportunities for women in basketball - or any other sport, for that matter - after high school back then. The women’s athletics department at the University of Tennessee wouldn’t be established until the late 1970s.

“We didn’t have a chance to go on to college because there weren’t very many teams,” Parton said.

Parton said she stayed around the game with rec ball for a few years after high school. Eventually, she left the game behind for other ways to stay fit. Not long after the Smoky Mountain Mamas formed in 2003, Parton met team member Anna Bright, who convinced the former Lady Panther to give the game another try.

Parton became fast friends with a one-time high school rival with the Smoky Mountain Mamas. Walland’s Edwina Cooper Burns said she’s been ate up with basketball since she was a kid, and her passion for it never lessened after high school.

“I just love basketball,” she said. “I’ve just loved it all my life.

“I never really quit. I went to park and played pickup ball a lot. We put up a goal at work, and we played everyday at lunch.”

The Lady Indians reached the state tournament semifinals Burns’ freshman season. Walland would not return for the remainder of her career. Perhaps that’s why the fire with which Burns plays the game never went out.

The 2007 national championship was “a huge deal” for all concerned, she said. For Burns, it really rang the bell.

Girls high school basketball in Tennessee was a six-on-six game throughout the 1970s, a setup where three forwards on one half of the court took all the shots. Three guards on the other end played defense. Burns played guard.

After the title game in Louisville two years ago, Burns, now getting a few jumpers for all her hard defensive work, was overcome.

“I cried,” she said. “I cried after every game we played because we were getting a little bit closer. It was a dream come true for me to get to play like that again.”

As the Smoky Mountain Mamas mix it up during a scrimmage on Tuesday, the play is full-contact. Former Porter coaching great Galen Johnson would let fly with a huge grin at the way Parton still boxes out. Walland legend A.J. Wilson would applaud the way Burns still bends her knees and gets in a stance. Everett icon Bob Berrong would stand up and cheer at the way Merritt and Alexander still push the tempo.

“I even tried playing basketball six weeks after I had my first child,” Alexander said. “That’s why I admire (former Tennessee Lady Vol and new mom) Candace Parker. I didn’t do so good.”

You can get hurt going at that pace at any age. That she’s still hard after the game in her 60s never fails to elicit the inevitable from family friends, Burns said.

“A lot of people I know will say, ‘Why do you do that?’” she said. “You just stay in better shape when you don’t just sit down and quit. Like (Tuesday) evening; I didn’t feel like going, but I feel better now that I did.”

Not surprisingly, Merritt is of the same mind.

“It gets pretty physical,” she said. “Every practice, there’s a new bruise.”

Along with each one, she said, comes a reminder of what it felt like to win that national championship.

“I’m a big competitor,” Merritt said. “It’s nice to be pretty good at something.”

The Smoky Mountain Mamas currently field teams in three age groups: 55-up, 60-up and 70-up. The 60-up team, national silver medalist two years ago, captured the Tennessee championship the same weekend the 55s won through to nationals to defend their crown.

Most of the team is flying to the Games early next week. Burns, on the other hand, is working this trip for all its worth. The former Lady Indian wants to see the country. She’s taking the train west on Friday with her mother, Jo.

“She played at Robbinsville High School,” Burns said, “and back then you could only dribble twice. Imagine playing like that!”

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