BAXTER, Tenn. (WTVF) — It started as a typical March for Bobby and Dana McWilliams, husband and wife and the varsity basketball coaches at Upperman High School. But in their many years of coaching, they’ve never had a team that had to overcome what this year’s teams were dealt.
“I (asked) Bobby the other morning, ‘how did our kids play?’” Dana McWilliams said in a recent Zoom interview. “I mean, how did they go through a tornado on early Tuesday morning and turn around and play on Wednesday and Thursday. How mentally did they do that? That says a lot about those kids.”
It was the most important time of the year for a basketball coach. The calendar had just flipped to March and both McWilliams had their teams in the hunt for Region titles.
Then shortly before 2 a.m. on March 3rd, their small town of Baxter was rocked by a devastating EF-4 tornado.
“I actually got a call from my senior, Ashland McClelan, whose house got hit,” Dana McWilliams said. “It was about 10 minutes (after the storm) and we knew it was bad.”
Winds of 175 miles per hour ripped through the community, leveling nearly everything in its path. The damage was catastrophic. The human toll was even worse, with 19 people killed in Putnam County alone.
Fortunately, McClelan and teammate Tori Brooks were unscathed despite the house they were sleeping in taking a direct hit.
Across the street, Rex Davis, a player on the boys’ team was asleep when the tornado barreled down on his house.”
“He was in his house on the second floor when the tornado actually hit,” Bobby McWilliams said. “The best he can tell you is his mom got him out of bed, he stood up and then the next thing he knew he was standing in the front yard.”
The McWilliams tried to go assist their players and their families, but were unable to get through all the debris to their street. In the meantime, they made contact with all their other players to make sure they were alright.
Miraculously, all their players were fine, but as daylight broke the depth of the destruction was stunning. As the teams began helping their neighbors pick up the pieces, they also had a decision to make about whether or not they wanted the basketball season to go on.
“We were actually scheduled to play that night,” Bobby McWilliams said. “We totally left it up to them whether they wanted to play or not.”
The boys team voted to play, and thanks to the cooperation of other coaches the region tournament was postponed a day. The girls team gathered for a lengthy team meeting in the afternoon, where the emotions flowed. But, they too, elected to have their season continue on.
“We had a team meeting just to kind of comfort everybody,” Dana McWilliams said. “It was a really emotional time. Everybody was so thankful that the three affected on our teams were okay, but then we realized that there were lives lost elsewhere and everybody had a connection.”
On March 4th, with the emotions still raw only 40 hours after the tornado, the Upperman Bees were back on the court with their season on the line in the Boys’ Region tournament.
“You could tell the energy was much different,” Bobby McWilliams said. “It was much quieter. You could tell no one was totally there, but once the game started they got into it.”
The Bees delivered a momentary distraction from the carnage back home with a win that guaranteed their spot in Sub-state. It was the first of five games in six days for the two programs.
Losses in their respective Region finals, sent both teams on the road for win or go home sub-state matchups. First up, came a trip for the Lady Bees to Meigs County.
“With everything going on, we just tried to make the best of it,” Dana McWilliams said. “We tried not to think about everything that was going on. Actually, (the game) went to overtime, so it was right down to the very last second.”
In a back and forth struggle that went to double overtime, Aiyana Levy hit three free throws in the final 14 seconds for a 44-42 win. The victory gave a hurting community a reason to celebrate.
“The emotions were really high,” Dana McWilliams said. “A lot of our fans came out on the court and it was a good celebration for us. It was really fun.”
Two nights later it went down to the wire again as the boys went to Chattanooga and beat Howard Tech by the exact same score. Isaiah Allen's free throws with five seconds left giving the Bees their 30th win of the season.
It also marked the first time both Upperman programs would reach state in the same season since 1999.
“It was a tremendous amount of celebration in the locker room and then after the game,” Bobby McWilliams said. “And then about 30 minutes into the bus ride (home), it really kind of calmed down a little bit. I think everybody was just mentally and physically just drained.”
Less than a week after the tornado Upperman once again stood tall, thanks to two teams that defined the strength of their community in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy.
“You think you’re close, and you’re even closer now because of that,” Dana McWilliams said. “You just saw a team and community that’s very resilient. Our community, the whole Putnam County, has been incredible.”
Days later the spread of COVID-19 forced the suspension of the state tournament just hours after the Upperman girls won their quarterfinal game, and before the boys even had a chance to take the floor.
But the disappointment of having their seasons halted pales in comparison to the accomplishment. That out of the rubble, these teams came together and helped lift a school and a community back onto their feet.
“We saw the magnitude of really what life’s about,” Bobby McWilliams said. “The things that happened leading up to them shutting those tournaments down really put it into perspective for those kids. We’re just super proud of the way they were able to carry themselves.
Added Dana, “There were much bigger things happening than our basketball games. Our kids understood that, we understood that, but I think it definitely gave (people) some happiness and a sense of pride for our community.”