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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

'We had Class A boys' Seventy years ago, Eagles were one tough bunch

Thursday, March 26, 2009

ASH FLAT EAGLES: Members of the 1939 state championship team at Ash Flat included, from left: Gordon Carpenter, Noble Robins, J.C. Frazier, Cateye Nix, A.L. Edwards, Harvey Robins, Raymond Duncan, Eullis Love, Doyne Martin and Coach Charles Taylor. Jack Estes is not pictured.
"You have to have good ball players."

Seems like a rather simple assessment of what it takes to compete for a state championship in high school basketball, doesn't it?

But simple or not, it's also the truth.

Because a couple of good players can make an average team better, while a couple of great players can make a good team superior.

And 70 years ago, the Ash Flat Eagles were one superior bunch.

They were one of the most dominant basketball teams in the history of Sharp County basketball.

Not only did the 1939 Eagles squad, a Class B team, compete at the Class A level, they also didn't lose a single game and ended the year as state champions in the senior tournament.

Not too shabby for a bunch of small-town farm boys from the middle of one of the state's least-populated (at that time) counties.

But the 1939 Ash Flat Eagles left their footprints all over the state of Arkansas that year and their head coach, Dr. Charles Taylor, remembers those days well.

"The first thing that comes to mind when I think back about that 1939 team is, I've never seen a high school team that could beat them," he said. "It was just an outstanding group of boys. They took instruction real well."

Taylor, who was quite a player at Arkansas (Lyon) College, was in the early stages of a career in teaching when he was asked to lead the basketball program at Ash Flat.

He took over coaching duties at Ash Flat from Claude Perryman and E.A. Jameson, the Eagles' previous coaches.

"I really wasn't planning on coaching," he said. "But it turned out that I did."

He coached two years at Ash Flat (1939-40) before attending medical school and then practicing medicine in Batesville for a number of years, and he still calls the Independence County seat home.

Taylor was inducted into the Lyon College Hall of Fame in 1984.

But before turning his attention to the world of healing, Taylor had an amazing two-year run at the helm of the Eagles, winning the senior state title in 1939 and finishing as state runner-ups in the junior tournament the following season.

These days, the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) has competition split up into seven classes, based on school size. But just a couple of years before Taylor started coaching Ash Flat, competition was split into two classes, going from just Class A to Class A and Class B. Ash Flat, being a smaller school, called Class B home. However, that didn't mean that a Class B school was forced to compete in Class B.

Taylor explains:

"You (Class B schools) had the opportunity to go either way. The B teams could go up, but the A teams could not go down to the B level," he said. "So we went up to the A level that year. We thought we had Class A boys."

At that time (late 1930s), this region was a hotbed of hoops in the state, with Violet Hill claiming the Class B state championship in 1939, while Sidney also made an appearance in the Class B finals, giving three out of the four slots in the state title game to teams from this area.

But regardless of class size, Ash Flat was loaded with more talent than just about any other high school in Arkansas in 1939.

Gordon Carpenter started at center for the Eagles. Joining him on the low blocks were forwards Noble Robins, A.L. Edwards and J.C. Frazier. In the backcourt, Ash Flat looked to guards Raymond Duncan and Bertis "Cateye" Nix for ball handling. Toss in Eullis Love, Doyne Martin, Jack Estes and Harvey Robins, and you had one heck of a formidable force on the hardwood.

Carpenter went on to become one of Sharp County's most decorated athletes (see below), but even in high school, he was too much for opposing teams to handle.

"He was a rare player. I don't think I've seen the equal of him. He was just unbeatable. He was the main force on our team, or course," Taylor said. "He was about 6-7 and he played like a much smaller player. He was the only big man I ever saw that could handle himself like a 5-7 or 5-8 player. He was really an excellent player. His great strength was taking the ball off the basket and rebounding. Nobody could get the ball if he was under the basket. When the ball came off the basket, he was about a foot above everybody else."

In other words, 'ole #99 was a whale of a player.

Robins, too, had his way with opposing forwards in the paint, giving the Eagles a lethal one-two punch around the rim.

"Noble was a little bit shorter than Gordon. He was about 6-4 or 6-5," the coach said. "He was very good. The two of them (Carpenter and Robins) under the basket couldn't hardly be kept without the ball. They were both good at taking the ball off the backboard."

With a couple of salty big men down low, all Ash Flat needed was a way to feed them the ball.

That's where Cateye and Duncan came in.

"Cateye was a good player. He was a guard, but sometimes he was pretty fast on thinking (did things without checking with the coach) and sometimes that was wrong," said Taylor. "He was left-handed and that helped him. Not too many teams saw a lot of left-handers."

Although he was a pre-teen at the time, Linn Garner, too, has vivid memories of that special Ash Flat Eagle squad from the late 30s. He also remembers the uncanny radar that Cateye was equipped with from long distance.

"At the old gym in Ash Flat, there was a stage on the east end where kids would sit," he said. "I remember one game where the team Ash Flat was playing decided to press at one point in the game. Cateye had the ball out of bounds just in front of the stage and was going to throw it to Gordon Carpenter, who was standing at midcourt. Well, Cateye threw the ball over Carpenter's head and it went into the basket at the other end of the floor."

Years after that, when he was asked about that play, Cateye, with a sly smile, was heard to say, "That wasn't a pass -- that was a shot all the way."

Duncan also was blessed with a load of basketball talent. Where Cateye could shoot the lights out, Duncan could move faster than the speed of light.

"He (Duncan) was a very good guard. He had the ability to move better than anyone else," said Taylor. "They (Duncan and Nix) were very good at getting the ball where they wanted it to go."

And Ash Flat went just where it wanted to go in 1939.

All the way to state.

But first,the Eagles captured the old Sharp County Tournament title that year.

"Nobody in the county had the athletic students that we did that year," Taylor said. "Williford, Evening Shade, Poughkeepsie and Cave City were the other teams that we played in the (Sharp) County Tournament."

After that, it was on to the district tournament, where a similarly-talented group of Hoxie Mustangs awaited a showdown with the Eagles.

"Hoxie was the senior team that we concentrated on," said Taylor. "Other than our team, they were probably the best around here at that time. And we beat them, too."

So after beating all the local competition, along with teams from Little Rock and Fort Smith, the Eagles made their way to the Class A State Tournament in Fayetteville.

Once there, Ash Flat beat the tournament hosts from Fayetteville, along with teams from Stuttgart and Pine Bluff, to claim the senior state tournament title.

But Taylor's senior team didn't have complete control of all the basketball talent in town.

His junior team was pretty good, too, although the styles of the two squads were a bit different.

"My senior team, we didn't hurry the ball down. We waited on the two big boys to get set on each side of the goal. So the guards took their time in getting down the floor. Then, we played around those two big men," said the coach. "Now my junior team was different. They played a good game and handled the ball a lot better than my senior team, really. My senior team just got ready to throw the ball to Robins and Carpenter. But I had to get a little different with my junior team. They had to learn to do some playing."

And learn to do some playing is just what Taylor's junior squad did.

And in a hurry.

They were state runner-ups the following year, in 1940.

"They (his Ash Flat junior team) took out the major team in the tournament that year. That team was up and down the floor with the ball all the time," said Taylor. "And that was how they won by 20 or 30 points over all the teams they were playing. But a team that took their time with the ball could beat them because they kept that team from getting the ball so much, so they couldn't score as much."

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