By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The saying goes 'Home is where the heart is.'
It makes sense – that's where your family resides, that's where your memories are made, it can be where friendships are kindled.
With their experiences growing up in Livingston and Sparta, the Upper Cumberland region has definitely been home to them, and they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
The funny thing about basketball in the Upper Cumberland though is that it is a family. With the surrounding counties and their corresponding districts, it gets to be a tight-knit group. Sure, some "sibling" rivalries may develop between the schools, but it's fascinating to see the players, the coaches, even the fans shake off the events of the game, act like it's no big deal and joke around like they're the best of friends – mainly because they tend to be.
And it's because a lot of these players have been traveling in the same circle, playing in the same camps, playing for the same travel teams and spending so much time together on the hardwood that they know so much about each other. Some of them live close enough they may see them in passing through the normal course of the day.
"You almost get to know everybody," Ramsey said. "It happens when you play nearly everybody once or twice a year. You just kind of keep up with everybody – where they go, what they do. You play a lot of summer ball with kids in the area. You go to different schools, but you're almost representing the same team."
Crosland added, "We have teammates from Georgia who have told us in a small area there could be 50 schools, but the Upper Cumberland is a big area. There's not that many schools, so people in the Upper Cumberland, they kind of know everybody. It's kind of cool."
They know the traditions the schools have, they know the fans sitting across the way, they know the best places to eat after the game and swap stories of years gone by.
Sure, sometimes it gets a little heated, but what family doesn't have those moments from time to time?
But stretching from Woodbury in the west to Jamestown in the east, Byrdstown and Celina in the north to McMinnville and Dunlap In the south and so on and so forth, the Upper Cumberland has seen its share of basketball talent over the years, and many of them have stayed close to home, playing for Tennessee Tech.
Even some of the players who have come from outside the area have made homes here and joined the community as coaches and administrators, because the area loves its basketball.
Mason Ramsey, like Chase Dunn before him, comes from a long line of fantastic players to come out of Livingston Academy and dominated on the court. He was named the District 8-AA most valuable player four times and led the Wildcats to three district titles, four region crowns and three state tournament appearances. He was a Class AA Mr. Basketball nominee as a senior, when he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds a game, leading LA to a 28-7 record.
"On my teams there, I had a lot of close friends," Ramsey said. "It's like playing with family. For me, it was – I had cousins, I had brothers on the team. But it's those memories – getting to play in the state tournament for three years with them – those are the things you honestly miss. I'd give anything to play another game with my brother (Logan) or my cousin. It's just getting to play games with those guys that you've been playing with that you've known your whole life."
Cade Crosland, like Brent Jolly in front of him, is another White County standout looking to make his mark with the Golden Eagles. When he spent his time in Sparta, Crosland helped the Warriors go 29-1 in his senior campaign as WCHS set the Tennessee high school state record for 3-pointers in a season. He averaged 16 points a game for a team that averaged more than 70 per contest.
Crosland's reminiscing of his prep days led him to a similar conclusion as Ramsey.
"I'd give anything to have my brother (Cole) as my point guard again," Crosland said. "That was just a great experience – my senior year with him. It was probably a parent's dream, but now looking back on it, I didn't realize how awesome that was. Not many people get to play high school basketball like that with your brother. He's always been my point guard, then he got to do it for the school, representing White County. That was really cool and I'd give anything to do that again."
To represent the Upper Cumberland on the national stage that intercollegiate basketball tends to encompass, it means a lot to the pair.
"There aren't a lot of kids that get to do this," Ramsey said. "I feel like that we represent more than just us. You've got your city on your back, your teammates in high school, everyone that's ever helped you to this point. You're playing for them too. It just means so much to represent the Upper Cumberland and be so close to home."
Crosland added, "Growing up around here and watching guys play that are from my area, it was just neat. To see people that are from your school, you start to think, 'Hey, if they can do it, I can do it.' It's that kind of mentality. The kids now, they can see us and start to think 'I can do that too.'"
But did they ever think they would be playing at Tech?
"You always think about it," Ramsey said. "When you're playing, you don't necessarily think about college, but people who coach you, people who want you, they kind of put it in your mind. When I got to high school, I thought I might have a chance and it turned out that I did. It's just ended up being a great opportunity to be here and play close to home. My family and friends can come watch."
Ramsey and Crosland are following in well-trodden footsteps as former UC players, and the number of people they know who have come through the program is impressive.
"My brother went to Lee and Frank Davis was there for a little while and recruited him there," Ramsey said, referencing the former Golden Eagle player and assistant coach. "He ends up coming back here to coach. I've had many close friends play here – Chase Dunn, John Miller. When you come here, you know there's going to be a lot of people who have watched you play and they're even closer now. They watched you grow up and, once you're at Tech, they're paying more attention to you."
The two Upper Cumberland products have also played a role for each other during the course of the season – Ramsey as a leader, Crosland as a potential breakout star.
For Crosland, the support from Ramsey has been tremendous.
"Mason's awesome," Crosland said. "Coming here, it was daunting. I was a little bit nervous to come in to a Division I program after just leaving Chattanooga State. It was a good experience with different players, but it wasn't the same as coming in here. It was awesome to have him here because he made me feel welcome. Everyone on the team did, but especially Mason. He took me in and made me feel like I was at home. If I ever had a question, he was there to help find the answer for you. He's really made it fun for me.
"Mason can also play some ball. He's a really good basketball player. It's fun to get that leadership from a good player. You have a leader saying, 'Hey, let's focus on this sophomore walk-on.' He knows I can help the team. I may not have the impact as a starter, but he's helped me grow as a player. There's several seniors on the team who are great leaders, but Mason leads everybody. He makes such a big impact."
For Ramsey, he sees a bright future for Crosland.
"Cade's my guy," Ramsey said. "I'm excited for him. I didn't know much about him when he came up, I just knew that he was from Sparta. Once he got here and I could see what kind of person he was, how good of a guy he is and how good of a player he is too, I just can't say enough good words about him. He's a competitor and he's someone you want to be around. We need more Cade Croslands at Tennessee Tech.
"I think the future is bright for him. If no one else thinks it, I do. I know the guys on the team do. We've talked about it. He's definitely got a shot. He said he had me to show some things – when I got here, I had Mitchell Hill (from Cookeville High). You always want someone to show you what to do, what not to do. I'm just trying to teach him what I didn't know and learn more things than I did."
Even with as many people from the Upper Cumberland who have walked through the doors of Memorial Gym or the Eblen Center over the years, to be able to follow in those legacies, it's humbling.
"To even be talked about in the same sentence as those players who have come before is just awesome to me," Ramsey said. "It's just a great honor and an accomplishment, really."
Crosland added, "When I went to Chatt State, I didn't realize how much of an impact it was to play in front of your home crowd every night. You get to see your family, the people who live around you. That's just so fun to play in front of people you really know, who really support you on and off the court and care about you. It's really fun to come back and feel that love and support. They don't just want you to succeed on the basketball court, they want you to succeed in life. That's really how the Upper Cumberland treats us."
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information / Tony Marable