Bulldog season comes to end in Elite 8 after team makes history with 5th State-tourney appearance

Clay’s post-season run inspires amazing show of community support



MURFREESBORO-The inspirational post-season run made by this year’s Clay County Bulldog basketball team came to an end here a week ago today with a 67-45 loss to Perry County in the opening round of the Class-A State Tournament.

Not only did their efforts yield one of the school’s only five Elite-8 appearances, but their play also inspired an outpouring of community support from residents in and around Clay County and all across the Upper Cumberland.

“It means everything,” head coach Rob Edwards said about the amazing display from the community.  “The kids were amazed to see everybody lining the streets in town to send us off that morning and the huge crowd that showed up down there in Murfreesboro.

“When you’ve got that kind of support behind you, it’s special.  I just wish things would’ve turned out a little better for the home crowd.”

The coach, whose team claimed the Region 4-A championship and won their sub-state game over Lookout Valley to reach the finals, said Monday his team has nothing to be ashamed of.

“It’s real disappointing when you expect to play well and compete and you don’t do it,” Edwards said, “but, at the same time, you have to remember this team was one of the best eight teams in the state.

“Whether you finish number one or number eight, it’s still quite an accomplishment for these guys.”

“You don’t want to be happy with just getting there, but you can’t dwell on the fact of getting beat in the first round,” he said.  “These guys have battled all year and they should be proud of where that took us.”

COMMUNITY OFFERS ENCOURAGING SUPPORT-The entire community got behind the Clay County Bulldogs as they competed for a state title last week, including the student body of Clay County High School–which gave the team a grand sendoff as they began their voyage to Murfreesboro, many locals who lined the streets of town to wish them luck on their trip, and a huge crowd that showed up at the Murphy Center consisting partly of a group from the local health and rehab center (bottom).  (photos by Doug Strong and Amy Dodson)

Dawgs strike 1st from deep

Senior Dylan Birdwell gave the black, purple, and gold plenty to cheer about early as he opened the game with back-to-back three-point baskets to give Clay County a 6-0 advantage out of the gate, but that margin quickly disappeared behind a run by Perry County.

“I threw it to Dylan a couple of times early and he knocked them down,” fellow senior and leading scorer Trent Boles said.  “I wanted to get everybody involved, but we just couldn’t get anything going.”

Birdwell’s half-dozen, paired with Boles’ lone first-half basket, made up the only eight points CCHS scored in the opening period, while Perry County’s Cannon Rhodes began his game-high 22-point scoring binge to help his team finish the quarter with a 13-2 run and take a five-point lead with the first eight minutes in the books.

“We came out a little timid under the bright lights, but that was to be expected on that big of a stage,” Edwards said, “but when we finally loosened up and got aggressive on defense we started picking up a lot of fouls and that hurt.

“We couldn’t get in any kind of offensive rhythm because I was having to sub all the time for the guys who were getting called for the fouls.”

Bulldogs get down by 10

The second stanza began with senior Matt Copeland cutting the lead to three with his first deuce, but Perry County then ripped off a 7-0 run to claim their first double-digit lead of the game and prompt the first Edwards’ timeout.

“Like always, I was trying to change momentum with the timeout,” the coach said, “but it didn’t work.

“We just couldn’t get anything going and they were getting points the easy way at the line.”

Perry County made nine of 12 from the charity stripe in the second quarter, while Clay County never had an attempt in the first half.

The free throws helped them outscore the Bulldogs 17-8 in the period and take a 14-point lead at intermission with the score 30-16.

Copeland scored another pair of field goals and Corey Hamilton made his only bucket of the game to account for the CCHS points in the frame.

Edwards said he tried everything to get his team going in the first two quarters.

“We tried to trap and press, but their point guard was a one-man press-breaker, so we had to get out of that,” he said.  “I played with the lineup quite a bit to try to get us going, but that didn’t work either.

“We got some shots, but they were mostly from the perimeter and credit them (Perry County) for their defensive scheme on that,” Edwards continued.  “We tried a lot of things, but they would leave some of our other guys and run two or three at Trent, even off ball screens.

“They did a good job on him and they were definitely going to try to make somebody else beat them.”

Clay County was seven for 27 from the floor in the first half shooting an anemic 26 percent.

“Yeah, we were a little nervous and you could tell we hadn’t played in a week,” Copeland said about his team’s rough start.  “We were just a little off and just couldn’t make shots fall.”

Boles said the same of the first-half performance by the Dawgs.

“Walking out I knew everybody was going to be nervous and we were,” he said, “and coach asked me at the half if I was ready to join the team and start playing and that really hit me hard.

“They covered me up the whole game, but I finally got it going in the third.”

Edwards’ motivation did help his team show signs of life despite the big halftime deficit.

Boles scores 15 in third

Boles and his squad were still in the game even though they were down by 14, but the big crowd on hand sensed the contest could quickly get out of hand if the Bulldogs didn’t make a big push coming out of the break.

After only scoring two in the first half, Boles answered the bell with 10 straight points to open the third quarter, but, unfortunately for Bulldog fans, Rhodes and company countered his every move.

Boles opened from deep with a three and Rhodes, the son of former Vanderbilt star Mike Rhodes, responded with one of his own.  Clay County’s standout then mirrored his first shot, but the Perry County gamer again answered from long distance.

The duo then took their scoring inside as Boles drove in to score and Rhodes did the same on the opposite end.  Another Boles’ scoring drive was then countered by a pair of Perry County free throws and the back and forth continued throughout the quarter.

Boles put up 15 in the frame, Jordan Strong added a three-pointer, and Dylan Carter came off the bench to score four–including a pair via a lob inbounds-play, to help CCHS outscore Perry County 22-18 in the quarter and cut the margin to 10 with eight minutes to play.

“I knew we would have to play well to get back in it after being backed in a corner at the half and Trent took it in his hands to get us there,” Edwards said.  “I thought we had a shot, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

Perry County run ends hope

Perry County dashed the Bulldog faithful’s hopes and zapped the life out of Clay County with an unanswered 14-point spurt that came as quickly as the fourth-quarter opening-buzzer sounded.

“They hit everything and that run killed us,” Boles said.

Strong stopped the bleeding momentarily with his second make from downtown, but as the three-minute mark approached Copeland left the floor with his fifth foul and his team was staring a 21-point deficit in the eye with no time to overcome it.

“We should’ve done better, but you can always do better in anything you do,” the senior emotional leader said.  “It meant a lot being down there and we gave a good run at it.”

Perry County made two more free throws capping off their 21 points from the line and made a final three pointer, while reserves Scottie Ballard (three-pointer) and Jacob Marcom  (free-throw) accounted for Clay County’s final points after both teams cleared their benches.

Clay County shot 33 percent for the game and only attempted four foul shots–three of which they made, while Perry County shot 48 percent from the field, thanks in part to Rhodes’ eight for 14 effort, and made 21 of 28 free-throw attempts.

“It’s hard to win when you only go to the line a couple of times,” Edwards said, “but we didn’t shoot very good from the floor either.  We got a lot of looks–even if most of them were from the perimeter.

“I guess you could say we settled for those outside shots, but we lived on it all year–that’s how we got that far.”

The coach said his team took over 50 shots compared to only 40 by Perry County.

“They did a good job on us, but we just missed when we got shots,”  Edwards said.  “Shooting 17 for 51 just won’t cut it in a game like that.”

Edwards on his 4 seniors

The loss was the final game for Boles, Copeland, Birdwell, and John Smith, who made up the team’s senior leadership.

“We’re definitely going to miss those guys,” Edwards said.  “They brought a lot to this team.”

Boles, who hit the 1,000-point mark during this year’s District 7-A tournament, averaged over 20 points per game in his senior season and made nearly 100 three-point baskets this year.

He shot nearly 40 percent from behind the arc and scored almost 700 points this season.

“He’s definitely the best pure scorer I’ve ever had,” Edwards said.  “Not necessarily the best all-around basketball player, but he could get his shot anytime he wanted and he is so comfortable with the ball in his hand.

“That’s where Trent shined… his confidence with the ball,” Edwards continued.  “He told me several times to get him the ball because he knew nobody could stop him.  That’s what you want to hear from your leading scorer.”

Boles said he was “definitely happy to be” in the state tournament and described the opportunity as “an honor” and said “it was a great experience.”

Edwards said his star has the talent to play at the next level and Boles said he would love to have the chance.

“I’ve been getting a few letters and I’d like to play,” he said.

Copeland was dubbed the team’s emotional leader by his coach and he stepped up when the Bulldogs needed it the most.

“He was the guy who got things done,” Edwards said.  “He didn’t care to mix it up, even in practice.  When guys were slacking, he helped get them back in line.

“You hear point guards being described as coaches on the floor, well that’s what Matt was for us–he was great at calling defenses and getting people where they were supposed to be.  He’s one smart kid and he wasn’t afraid to do the dirty work to keep us in games.”

Edwards said Birdwell and Smith were also big assets to his team.

“There were definitely some games this year we would not have won without Dylan,” the coach said, “and John was always giving us a big play here and there.”

Edwards said Birdwell had a prowess for offensive rebounding and Smith always wanted to get better and help out anyway he could.

“When I got on Dylan about rebounding you could bet he would get the next offensive board,” Edwards said, “and John always worked his tail off.  He is a great kid and set a good example for the rest of the team.”

Edwards on next season

Next season’s squad will again be missing most of this year’s key players, but that situation is one Edwards has become accustomed to.

“Yeah, most of the time I’d be losing at least four starters,” he said jokingly about next year’s returners.

Boles was the only returning player with any experience to mention this year and Edwards has fielded several teams in the past with players lacking significant playing time.

“Next year we will return five guys with quite a bit of experience,” he said.  “That should be a plus for us.”

Those players will include Hamilton, Strong, Carter, Jake Edwards, and Dusty Birdwell.

“I’m pretty sure four of the five starting positions will be nailed down, but you never know,” coach Edwards said.  “Those guys will make the decision for me with their play.

“We should find out this summer.”

He said he expected his team to compete well next year thanks to the returning experienced players.

“We will have to replace three starters, but we should be right in the mix,” Edwards said in closing.  “It will be tough to replace around 85 percent of your offense and the district will be tough again next year–we’ll have to play good every night.

“We’ll just have to see how it all plays out.”

DAWGS (45)-Boles 17, Copeland 6, Birdwell 6, Strong 6, Carter 4, Ballard 3, Hamilton 2, Marcom 1.