Volunteer’s basketball program has risen to a different level this season, in part because of TSSAA reclassification that put the Falcons in a new league.

But the renaissance didn’t start with the beginning of this season. It actually began with a loss almost a year ago, said head coach Mike Poe.

On Jan. 30, 2021, the Falcons came within two points of beating Science Hill for what may have been the first time in school history. It was a loss, but it was a program changer.

“I hadn’t ever seen that kind of hurt in a bunch of kids’ eyes,” said Poe, the former head coach at Science Hill, where he led the Hilltoppers to a state runner-up finish in 2002. “To my knowledge, I don’t think Volunteer has ever beaten Science Hill. We’ve said our enrollment was closer to Clinch than it was to Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill. That kind of speaks volumes.

“The kids knew they had their chance. I didn’t know what to say to them. I think that was the turning point for us.”

A couple of weeks later, the Falcons knocked off Tennessee High to reach the region tournament for the first time since 2005.

“Playing in the region, I thought that was big for the program and the community,” Poe said. “For so many years they didn’t think they belonged. I would go to the grocery store and people would say they couldn’t wait for the coming basketball season. And it was the middle of June.”

Hopes have turned into reality as Volunteer is off to a 15-7 start with a 4-0 mark in the Upper Lakes Conference.

All four of the league wins have been tough, and Poe said his team has succeeded because of experience.

“I just feel like it’s a different deal during a timeout in a close game,” he said. “They just continue to play, and they’ve made enough plays in close games. Those guys have learned how to win close games. There’s no magic wand for experience.”

It starts with four guards, who each have above-average ball handling skills: Bradin Minton, Andrew Knittel, Joltin Harrison and senior Heath Miller.

“Teams can’t take the best ball handler away because we have three others who can handle it,” Poe said.

And when things get into position, posts Garrison Barrett, Cason Christian, Jon Wes Lovelace and Elijah Rogers thrive.

“Barrett is a good athlete who understands the game,” Poe said. “Lovelace is not overly strong, but he’s like a stretch four who can make shots from the perimeter. Elijah is a mismatch because he’s strong but can go by you.”

And that leaves Christian, who hasn’t had a sustained chance to prove his worth this season.

“He may be the best all-around athlete,” Poe said. “He has only played in three games (because of injury). We hope to get him back Tuesday. I am anxious to see how we do when we have them all. Those are eight really solid basketball players who are equally talented.”

The next step is the most important one for the regular season. Can the Falcons turn the next four games into an Upper Lakes Conference championship?

If so, can they carry the momentum into the district tournament and make some postseason noise?

Certainly Falcons’ fans have reason to be hopeful.

“These kids are the face of the school, and they carry themselves in that manner,” Poe said. “You just don’t see that nowadays. The junior-senior classes are very unique. They understand the whole package and what is expected of them. I attribute that to the parents and the way they have been raised. These kids love one another, and they want to win a championship.”