Small-town athletes bring rituals, pride to Spring Fling
Tournament's memories will last a lifetime
By RACHEL STULTS • Staff Writer • May 22, 2008
MURFREESBORO — Teenagers shave each other's heads. Rival teams from the same small town cheer for one another. And, believe it or not, parents encourage their kids to miss their high school graduations, all for a chance to be part of this one small slice of a lifetime.
They call it Spring Fling, a statewide high school sports tournament in which nearly 5,000 of Tennessee's most talented athletes gather to compete for six days in spring sports — baseball, softball, track, tennis and boys' soccer. They've been doing this for 15 years.
Ronnie Carter, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, said it is the only statewide event of its kind in the nation. A state high school Olympics of sorts, no other competition in the U.S. combines so many sports in one place at one time, he said.
"I still think high school sports in Tennessee is in the purest form,'' Carter said. "Everybody knows a very small number will move from here to college sports. A lot of them, it's the premier performance of their life and it will be a memory for forever.''
This year, the athletes are in Murfreesboro, taking over hotels and restaurants. The gathering draws about 40,000 visitors to the community and is expected to bring in about $3.4 million to local businesses.
"State bound" is scrawled on the back windshields of cars, their windows open, cheers spilling onto the streets.
Here small-town pride intersects with big-time sacrifices. And team is everything.
Community follows team
Consider Ashley Youngcourt and the dark pink scar on her right knee.
The 15-year-old softball player tore her anterior cruciate ligament in December and has been out for the season. Still, she made the two-hour trip from Waverly, Tenn., because she needed to be with her team for its moment of pride.
"I'm always going to be there for my team in any way I can," Ashley said. "Of course I'm going to be here even if I can't play.''
Ashley and some of the girls from Waverly Central High School sat with their feet in the hotel swimming pool, splashing one another and sharing secrets, killing time before their game. They arrived in Murfreesboro the night before because their coach wanted them to enjoy the trip. For the girls, Spring Fling was not only a chance to compete, but also a vacation — a break, a chance to stay up late and laugh with friends.
They talked about how much they wanted the top title. But for some, just getting here is enough.
"For some of us, and probably most of us, this will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Macauley Bohannon, 15. "So we might as well live it up."
The girls expect supporters in Humphreys County to follow them to Murfreesboro. Their rival team at Camden Central High School will be here, as well, they said, rooting for them. Because that's what small towns do.
In Waverly, Ashley and her 16 teammates are heroes. The community has rallied around them, raising $4,000 for their trip and designing signs for their tournament. Gas stations and mom-and-pop store signs proclaim their success and wish them more luck.
If they win, they stand to miss a lot back home.
If the Lady Tigers go far enough, the team's three seniors will miss their graduations Friday. But their parents say, so what?
"I'm here to play ball," said Frankie Burlison, of Johnsonville, Tenn., as he watched his daughter take her position Tuesday night. "The way I see it, they can give her her diploma when we get back. You don't get to this point and let your team down to graduate."
Even Ashley's parents took off from work to come watch the Lady Tigers play, though Ashley won't be on the field.
Fans can be die-hards
Some die-hard fans have made the trip to Murfreesboro to rally around the team — not just their own son or daughter.
Take Beverly Cooper. Her grandchildren are not in the tournament, but she and about 300 others from neighboring Marshall County showed up to cheer for the Rockets, the softball team from Forrest High School.
"They could play checkers and we would go watch them," said Cooper, 74, of Chapel Hill, wearing a team sweatshirt and visor.
At an adjacent softball diamond, a half-dozen boys from DeKalb County leaned against the fence cheering for their girlfriends. The boys had stripped off their shirts and painted their torsos black and white — the team colors of their sweethearts.
"This is the first time they've been to state in 10 years. It's a big deal for them,'' said Tyler Robinson, 17.
Earlier in the day, another group of boys arriving from East Tennessee proudly displayed their solidarity and team spirit with cleanly shaven heads.
The Rockwood High School baseball team checked in to its hotel room at the Holiday Inn and fought the urge to nap after the trip from the small town about 40 miles west of Knoxville.
Instead, they gathered in the lobby for a team meeting and huddle before heading to the field.
The Tigers teased one another, musing with pride about the Spring Fling tradition they began last year: shaving one another's heads before the state tournament.
One freshman player had stopped at a barbershop in Murfreesboro to make sure he had his hair buzzed before he met his team at the hotel.
They laughed as they remembered corralling the team's German exchange student into shaving his once-spiked hair for the tournament.
Moments later, Uli Diez emerged from his room, sleep still in his eyes, rubbing his newly shaved head.
"It's pretty cool to stay with friends together in a hotel, to be on a big trip together," Uli said. "I will not forget this my whole life."
His mother and sister, who are visiting from Germany, came along to watch Diez play.
"I think he has found friends forever," said Sabine Diez, Uli's mother.