In the Hoop
Many area basketball fans are aware of the University of
Connecticut Lady Huskies' current 58-game winning streak. Those same fans might be surprised to
learn that there's a similar streak going on right here in Watauga County.
Tammy Dunnigan, the girls' basketball coach at Hardin Park School, has been coaching for five years without a single loss to another school in the Watauga County Middle School division. Next month, she will step down as the Eagles' coach, and if she wins her next three games, she will have completed five basketball seasons with more than 60 wins and nothing but "goose eggs" in the loss column.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Dunnigan's run is that she never coached basketball before taking the Hardin Park job five years ago.
"I played basketball in high school in Johnson City, Tennessee," Dunnigan said. "My husband and my sister, Bobby Dunnigan and Kelly Gilliam, coached at the high school level. So, I learned a lot from them."
When Dunnigan's daughter, Courtney, was an eighth grade player at Hardin Park, the Eagles were suddenly without a basketball coach.
"Kelly and Bobby said, 'You've got some free time, Tammy. Why don't you go over there and coach them?'
"I said, 'I don't have the ability. I haven't coached. I don't want to coach.' My drive to win far exceeds what I want it to be. I just hate to lose. But they said, 'Just go over there and get them in shape. Just get them in shape, and we'll help you.' So, I agreed to do that."
Because of Bobby Dunnigan and Gilliam's experience coaching high school and AAU "Travel" league basketball, Dunnigan was able to pick up a lot of coaching tips in a hurry. Travel league players usually play on the weekends for 6 to 8 weeks after the school season, competing with teams from a larger geographic area.
"We'd use plays that they were using for the local Travel team, the Watauga Storm," Dunnigan said. "I just piggy-backed on what they did. My first year, I had seven Travel league players. To me, that's really where they get their experience and where they develop and learn how to play basketball."
Dunnigan also used that first year to develop her own style of coaching, one that emphasized getting the players in tip-top shape.
"One of my parents asked their daughter once, 'Are you going to basketball practice or track practice?'" Dunnigan said.
Dunnigan freely admits that she "gets after them" in practice, but is also proud to say that she has had the full support of principal Mary Smalling and the players' parents.
"When you come into this gym, you've made a commitment to be instructed in basketball," Dunnigan said. "I expect your full attention. I expect you to be in practice. I can honestly say that in five years, I haven't had a single parent come to me disgruntled about how I've treated their daughter."
Now, 60-plus wins into her coaching career, Dunnigan is heading down the home stretch at Hardin Park. She'll hand the whistle over to another coach, due in part to daughter Whitney's graduation to the high school level.
"This will give me a better opportunity to see her play next year," Dunnigan said.
After this week's games against Green Valley and Parkway, Dunnigan's team will face its final foes at Cove Creek on Monday, Feb. 1, and at home against Mabel in the Hardin Park Gymnasium on Monday, Feb. 8.
For the final home game, all of Dunnigan's former players have been invited back to the school for a celebration, and a banner will be raised in her honor.
"Over the past five years, it has become a way to positively affect young women," Dunnigan said, "not so much in basketball, but in life. I want them to far exceed what they thought they could do, both physically and mentally. I want them to learn that the effort that you put into things is directly related to the amount you get out of them."
With such lofty goals, it is easy to forget "the streak." Five years without an in-county loss takes not only skill and dedication, but also a little bit of luck along the way. There have been close games and competitive rivals, but nothing has knocked Dunnigan's team out of the winner's circle for half a decade.
"Over the past few years, Parkway has been our closest rival," Dunnigan said. "We only beat them by six points at our gym earlier this year, so the game coming up at Parkway should be a tough one.
"The winning makes it fun, and it makes things easier. But I'm most proud of what I feel like I have contributed to the lives of the young ladies who have left the program. I try to be a strong and good influence on their lives."