Two county basketball tournaments involving area teams were called off Monday morning.
Blame the pandemic – and the fallout from it – for both cancellations.
Not long after Marshall County Superintendent Dr. Cindy Wigley announced the cancellation of the Marshall County high school tournament, Morgan County officials released a statement about the cancellation of their tournament, which was scheduled to be played at Brewer Feb. 8-12.
Included in Wigley’s release was the information that host Arab City Schools also is canceling the county junior high tournament, which was scheduled to start Saturday and conclude on Jan. 16.
The high school tournament was scheduled to start Jan. 16 and conclude Jan. 23 at Snead State Community College.
The last time there was no true eight-team county tournament was 2011. That year, the four schools in the Marshall County School System conducted their own tournament.
Except for 2011, the boys tournament has been played every year since at least 1955. It started in 1947, according to The Sand Mountain Reporter.
The girls tournament started in 1979, when Arab defeated Boaz 31-9 in the final.
Both Wigley and Morgan County Superintendent Robert Elliott Jr. cited the pandemic as the cause of the cancellations.
“On behalf of the administrators and coaches of our five high schools, I am sad to announce that we are canceling the 2020-2021 Morgan County High School Basketball Tournament,” Elliott said in a release. “This decision was not made easily nor without thinking about the history and heritage of this great tournament.
“However, in the end, the most important aspect of our decision was the safety and well being of our students, parents and communities.”
Of note, the Morgan County junior high tournament will be played as scheduled beginning today and concluding Jan. 16. The site will be at the No. 1 seed’s gym, which wasn’t determined until the end of play Tuesday night.
The pandemic has played havoc with all sports in this country for almost a year now. Games at all levels in all sports have been postponed or canceled. Most recently, Cornerstone Christian School in Birmingham has decided to end its 2020-2021 high school basketball season prematurely amid continuing concerns about COVID-19, according to AL.com on Monday.
But an indirect cause of the county basketball tournament cancellations can also be attributed to the pandemic. So many games have had to be rescheduled – including high-priority area games – that teams felt like they couldn’t afford to block off a week of games.
“I think it’s a smart move,” said Brindlee Mountain boys coach Seth Kelly. “We just can’t take that risk this late in the season with area tournaments coming up.
“This opens up that week for rescheduling games. It’s a good move this year.”
Already, Brindlee Mountain’s teams have filled the week of Jan. 16-23 with rescheduled games against Asbury, at DAR and Holly Pond. Lions teams will try to play three games a week for the complete month of January.
“I’m just happy we’re getting to play games again,” Kelly said.
Longtime participants in the county tournament understand the rationale for the cancellations and agree with it. They just hate it – especially for the players.
“I truly hate that the tournament is being canceled for the kids sake,” said Arab JV boys coach Brad Kitchens. “The Marshall County Tournament is a special event that creates so many lifelong memories that these seniors, especially, will miss out on.”
Brindlee Mountain varsity girls coach Tony Mabrey, like Kitchens, has played and coached in the county tournament. He starred for Albertville and counts many memories from the tournament during a career that led him to be inducted in the Marshall County Sports Hall of Fame.
“I loved the county tournament,” he said this week. “I grew up with Brad Kitchens and we would go to Snead all the time because his dad (John) was the coach there.
“We went to all the county tournaments.”
One of Mabrey’s most memorable moments happened during the 1979 tournament, his senior year.
“We were playing Arab in the semis, and they had a really good team,” he said. “They had Harold Brownlow, Monte Davis, Mark Farmer, Andy Mann.
“I had the ball at the end of the game. Greg Driskell, another really good player was guarding me. I was dribbling the ball and waiting for the clock to wind down. I was about 25 feet from the basket.”
Mabrey said his intention, because the game was tied, was to take the clock down to a second or two and fire up the potential game-winner.
“I figured if I missed, we still had overtime,” he said.
But as the clock wound down, Mabrey noticed his coach, Shannon Sloan, waving at him frantically to shoot the ball.
“I couldn’t hear him but I saw him,” Mabrey said. “He was telling me to shoot.”
What Mabrey didn’t know at the moment was that the game wasn’t tied. Arab led by a point.
Urged on by his coach, Mabrey shot the 26-footer. It went in.
Albertville prevailed and Mabrey went on to win tournament MVP honors despite the Aggies falling in the final.
“I think that’s the only time that’s happened,” he said.
After the game, Mabrey found out why his coach – and probably all his teammates – were screaming for him to shoot.
“When I took the shot, I thought we were tied,” he said. “Everyone, including a lot of college recruiters, were telling me ‘what a clutch shot.’
“I didn’t tell anyone for two weeks that I thought we were tied. I was too embarrassed. Dr. Driskell and I still talk about that to this day.”
Kitchens has an embarrassing memory, too.
“My senior year at Boaz, I came into the tournament shooting 92 percent for the year from the free throw line,” he said. “We were playing Arab and I went to the line down by two to shoot a one-and-one with three seconds left.
“I choked bad, we lost and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Monte Davis will also remind me of it occasionally just to make sure I don’t forget about it.”
But Kitchens’ fondest memory of the county tournament almost made up for it.
“I came as the JV coach for Arab in 1988,” he said. “We played Boaz in the semifinal and won in overtime. My brother played for Boaz and hit a 3-pointer to put Boaz ahead by two with about 15 seconds to go in the game.
“We came down and missed a shot to tie the game but Brian Strickland got the put-back at the buzzer to send it into overtime, where we won. We played really well and beat an undefeated Douglas team in the finals.
“I was really proud of the character my team showed under adversity and how well they played. I was also proud of how my brother had stepped up for his team. He was their leading scorer. It was special. I still remind him, though, that we won.”
Those kind of memories won’t happen this year.
“Our county tournament is just special,” Kitchens said. “Ask the Birmingham officials who officiate the games at Snead. They tell us every year how much they enjoy coming up here to call the games and how special it is.
“When you’re in the finals and the gym is packed with spectators from all over the county, it doesn’t get much better than that. I will always remember the look on my players’ smiling faces as they held up the trophy after a championship win.
“It saddens me that five groups of kids won’t get to have that experience this year and it may have been the only time in their life that they would have been able to make that memory.”