By Tim Chambers
Leon Tolley has always been one to overcome difficult odds, even when it seemed like an impossible task. But the deck was stacked against him four years ago when he came to Johnson County as an assistant coach.
The task was tall, but Tolley was used to the tall task. Like the time that the Tennessee Vols signed Wayne Tiller, who played for Houston County High School. They were Hampton’s first opponent in the state tournament in 1983, and everybody was wondering how the 6’2 Tolley was going to stop the big guy from scoring.
They should have been wondering how Tiller was going to stop Tolley, who scored 21 points that night as the Bramer sharpshooter was hotter than a cast iron wood stove going full blast in the wintertime that evening hitting step-back jumpers from everywhere on the court. He was 7-of-8 from the foul line.
It’s funny that when Tolley was hired as the assistant coach four years ago, he would joke and say his job was to guard the water. Johnson County might want to guard against somebody hiring Tolley away just like they might need to do with Coach Austin Atwood.
The rumor around the area is that Johnson County has some of the best high school coaches in Northeast Tennessee, and when rumors start flying, they come calling.
How far have the Lady Longhorns come under Tolley? The answer is miles and miles. But it’s not just Tolley who has given his impute. He is assisted by Garry Smith, who played on the 1966 Hampton team that finished fourth in the state when they were no classifications coached by the legendary Walter “Buck” VanHuss. “
He also brought on Kechia Eller, who coached all the senior players as eighth-graders.
“My assistant coaches deserve a lot of the credit,” said Tolley. “Coach Smith played for Coach VanHuss, and he has a wealth of basketball knowledge. We still do a lot of the things that they did in practice. Our players love Coach Kechia to death. I couldn’t ask for two better assistant coaches. They are loyal to the program, and they both love the kids.”
In Tolley’s first season as an assistant, the Horns wee 5-17, which included some very lopsided losses to Elizabethton, Unicoi County and Sullivan East, teams that Tolley has beaten in the last three years.
Tolley’s Horns were within 40 seconds of shocking South Greene this year in the first round of the regional tournament. They held a four-point lead late but couldn’t hold on down the stretch, and they played the game without their leading scorer Taylor Cox.
“It seemed like we played better at the end of the season as the fans and the county joined in and supported us. The number of fans that we had on a snowy night at South Greene was amazing. We couldn’t have asked for anything more. If Taylor had been healthy, we might have played a few more games.”
Cox, was tabbed as a first-team All-Northeast Tennessee player, She averaged 15.9 points per game in the regular season. Junior guard Sadie Stout averaged 11.3 points, and senior Taylor Parsons collected 8.4 rebounds per game were honorable mention picks.
The Longhorns could field a good team next season with Stout returning along with junior Emmy Miller 8.9 rebounds and 8 points per game returning in addition to Rhiannon Icenhour, who provided some valuable minutes off the bench especially late in the season.
The Horns must find a way to replace its senior point guard Natalie Winters 4.4 assists per game and super subs, Abby Cornett and Hazlee Kleine.
They came to work every day ready to get after it,” Tolley said. “They changed the attitude up here as to where hopefully the young girls of Johnson County might dream of playing basketball along with softball and volleyball. It’s not been that way in past years.”
Tolley, Eller, and Smith built the team from scratch like Martha White does her biscuits.
“It was a special group,” said Tolley about his six seniors. We’ve been together since I got here. Cox, Parsons, Winters, Cornett, Tiffany Price, and Hazlee Kleine — were freshmen when I got here, and we added Sadie, Emmy, Abby Lipford, and Rhiannon the following year. I couldn’t have done any of this without them or my assistant coaches. I’ve been the blessed one.”
Tolley knew things were about to turn around; then, his team improved from five wins to 13 the first year that he took the helm. “It was like our kids came to the games expecting to win.”
Tolley’s first marquee win got fans believing when he defeated Elizabethton 55-54 at Elizabethton back on December 1, 2017.
The community needs to embrace Tolley and thank him, Smith and Eller, for putting girls’ basketball on the right track at Johnson County.
You can bet that his services haven’t gone unnoticed. That’s why he’s your Northeast, Tennessee girls’ basketball coach of the year.