Remembering Rutherford: Central High girls won first state basketball title

Greg Tucker, Daily News Journal, August 22, 2014

The Blackman High girls’ basketball team made history in March 2014 winning the school’s first state team championship. This convincing display of athletic dominance came exactly 90 years after the girls of Central High School (CHS) brought Rutherford County its first state basketball title.
1923 Girls Basketball

As a precursor to the state championship, the CHS 1923 team won the Middle Tennessee Athletic Association championship. The coach was W. R. Romine, who doubled as the CHS manual training instructor. The team was captained by Ida Lee Byrn; India Gannaway served as the team manager.

A senior in 1923, Gannaway had been captain and played guard on the 1922 team. Voted the “Best All Around Girl” in her graduating class, her classmates predicted that she would someday coach the CHS girls basketball team. Perhaps because of injury, she served as manager for the 1923 team.

Byrn, a junior in 1923 when she captained the team and played at forward, served as vice president of her senior class, and also played first violin for the CHS orchestra.

Others on the Middle Tennessee championship team included Ruth Pate at center, backed up by Lizzie Mai Gray. Senior Leola Walker played forward with Byrn. Mary Ruth McCullough and Cornelia Leatherman subbed at forward. Junior Louise Snell and sophomore Lane Walker were the guards.

Pate, a veteran who eventually earned four letters, was the team’s center. She also played behind Byrn as second violin in the CHS orchestra. Leola Walker, older sister of Lane, was the only senior playing on the 1923 team. She was said to aspire to a career in physical education. McCullough played on the court and the stage as a member of the dramatics club. Her counterpart at forward, Leatherman, played drums for the CHS orchestra.

The 1923 graduation took only Gannaway and Leola Walker, leaving a 1924 line up consisting of McCullough, Byrn and Leatherman at forward; Snell, Gray and Lane Walker at guard; and Pate playing center. With just these seven, the team may have lacked depth, but they proved long on experience, skill and confidence.

After a slow season start, losing close contests to Goodlettsville and Nashville Central, the 1924 girls went on a dominating run, often holding opponents to single digits. In a rematch against Nashville Central, CHS more than doubled the opponents total. Springfield was humiliated 57-2. In a rematch Springfield managed to up their total to 6 but still lost by 20 points.

Season play earned CHS a berth in the state championship tournament. Play was set for Nashville at the Peabody gymnasium. Competitors included Peabody training school, and two other Nashville teams (Hume-Fogg and Nashville Central). CHS joined 16 other teams from across Tennessee. The Nashville media gave low odds to the Rutherford County girls.

Player eligibility was apparently a concern in the 1920s. Explicit tournament eligibility rules included the requirement that “a student eligible for a team must be taking four credit subjects and must be doing satisfactory work in all of them. Spelling and typewriting must not be included in these subjects.” Rules of the game were also in flux in the 1920s. Tournament organizers determined that “the three-court system slowed up the game, and the six player system on inadequate floor space made the game rough.” Accordingly, it was decided that the “five-player two-court game” would be the “best system under conditions at present prevailing in Tennessee.” This meant that “five players shall make up the team with the center running the floor and being allowed to shoot for goal.” Only one floor official, Josh Hughes, would work the games.

It was also determined that all participating team players, coaches and chaperones would be admitted free to all games. Annie Glenn Mc-Coy was the CHS chaperone. (The boys teams in 1924 did not have chaperones.) CHS advanced easily to the quarter-finals while the local media focused on the favorites and the Nashville teams.

In the quarter-finals CHS faced a tournament favorite from Union City. The headline on the following morning focused on the favorite: “Union City Defeated.” Sportswriter Lewie Little wrote: “Union City’s loss to Murfreesboro was the only surprise… and without a doubt this was the fastest, most thrilling and exciting girls’ game ever staged in Nashville…the strong Union City five was put out of the race by Murfreesboro, the final count being 26 to 23. The score at the end of the first half was 14 to 9. The last period was faster than the average boys’ game, Union City keeping possession a majority of the time…(but) they had hard luck on many of their shots.” CHS had better luck. McCullough scored 8 points, Leatherman 6; Byrn 2; and Pate 10. On the morning of the semi-final round, the Nashville media gloated: “Local Teams Have Bright Chance at Girls’ Title.” Hume-Fogg, Nashville Central and Peabody had reached the semi-finals. The fourth team to make the “final four” was CHS.

The semi-final round was played on Saturday morning (May 1, 1924). The championship game took place that evening. The Sunday morning newspaper headline read: “Murfreesboro Wins State Title by Close Victory over Peabody.” Ignoring the semi-final results, the morning paper detailed the championship play-by-play.

“McCullough started the scoring with a free throw then Peabody took the lead with a field goal. Miss Pate gave Murfreesboro the lead and again Peabody went one point ahead…A free throw by Miss Leatherman and two field goals by Miss Pate and Miss McCullough took the spirit out of the Peabody backers…Peabody made another free throw while Miss Leatherman made the last field goal in the first half. The count at the end of the initial period was 13 to 6.

“Murfreesboro came back (from the break) with a rush, and the Misses McCullough and Byrn caged field goals in succession…This was the most exciting period of the game.” Peabody made a run and narrowed the lead to two points, but two goals by Pate assured the victory, 22 to 20.

“The quick and accurate passing of the Misses Pate, McCullough and Leatherman was great. Never did one of these players attempt to shoot if one or the other was not covered. Miss Pate played a great floor game and was high scorer… Miss Gray and Miss Snell put up a great defensive fight for the out of- town five. Each of these players broke up the passes of the locals and got the ball off the backboard like real stars.” Snell’s season long defensive effort earned her 1924 All State honors.

Snell, Pate and Gannaway went on to play for the State Teachers College, Murfreesboro (now MTSU). Snell served as team captain and kept up her aggressive play at guard. Gannaway was for several seasons both player and team manager. Pate continued her dominant role at center.

Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker can be reached at

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