A Look Back To 1974
FOUR OAKS — An appropriately quaint letter, dated March 11, 1974, addressed to South Johnston High School athletic director Bruce Coats, spells out a unique message from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
“I want to offer my congratulations and commendations to you, Coach (Tom) Jackson and all the members of the team,” read the personal note, honoring one of the best girls basketball teams to grace Helms’ home state of North Carolina.
Just nine days prior, Jackson and his Lady Trojans wrapped up a near-perfect season by securing the school’s first state championship while presenting a band of stellar student-athletes who would be forever associated with unprecedented greatness.
A ‘motivated’ group
Few hoops programs were more dominant in the state than the South girls during the 1970s.
Starting in 1971, the school collected seven consecutive conference championships and felt poised for a title chase in 1973 after taking the district championship.
But a late-round exit during the state playoffs foiled those plans for Renee Wood and the rest of the Lady Trojans.
“That was a great motivation,” Wood said in a recent phone interview about the postseason loss that served as fuel to fire up the bunch heading into the ’74 season. “We wanted to win it all, not just districts. That was the major goal, to win the whole thing and it was wonderful for me because I was a senior.”
Coach Jackson elevated the team’s preparation in accord with the newfound hungriness. From wind sprints to wall sits, nothing was out of bounds for the second-year head man during his practice sessions.
“The whole school knew when basketball practices started because we would need help walking up the steps at school the next day,” said Wood. “He was a good coach. He was tough and that made us tough.”
The gritty persona powered the girls past every opponent on the schedule with the exception of one frustratingly familiar foe.
Tangling with ‘Triple-S’
Wanda Watkins, an eventual three-time all-state player, was entering her third season as the starting point guard and contends she didn’t realize the legendary group only lost one game the entire season. But it didn’t take long for her to figure out who the culprit was.
“It must have been Triple-S,” Watkins said, referring to nearby rival Smithfield-Selma Spartans.
Watkins referred to the matchups as a “healthy rivalry” noting the friendships she developed with Triple-S players over the years. She added that they were the stiffest competition during her four years leading the Lady Trojans.
Though Wood didn’t necessarily give in to the notion that the Lady Spartans were a great program, she couldn’t deny the pounding players on both sides took every time they met.
“They were a very physical team, it wasn’t touchy-feely. So, we had to be that way also,” said Wood. “It was always, kind of, tit-for-tat and whoever got the last tat won.”
Triple-S would strike first during a regular season meeting in Smithfield, giving South its only blemish. Watkins says the nature of the rivalry was set where no one team would dominate the matchup.
“It was just two great traditional programs that would come together. You knew you had your work cut out for you if you were going to beat them,” said Watkins. “You also knew if you beat them, you were going to be beating one of the best teams around, and that was going to better prepare you for down the road.”
The Lady Trojans issued the final blow during the Capital Area Conference Tournament, defeating Triple-S and taking the tourney crown. They followed by collecting a consecutive district championship, setting up another shot at a state title.
The highest point
Both Watkins and Wood emphasized how connected the team was throughout the year, giving way for a host of players to make an impact.
Genia Beasley, the future three-time all-state performer and Kodak All-American at North Carolina State University, was the starting center as a rising sophomore center.
“It was great playing with a player like that because I love getting assists, and it was easy getting assists … because you could just get it in there to her and she was goin’ knock it in,” Watkins said of Beasley.
Watkins says the 6-foot-2 center was a “tremendous post player” because of her combination of great hands, agility, speed and shooting touch.
The inside-outside tandem led the Lady Trojans in scoring, but was complemented by Wood and other hard-working starters who were pushed every day by a deep bench.
“Unless we had a really good second string to practice with, we wouldn’t have been as good as we were,” said Wood.
Watkins carried the same sentiments, mentioning other key players like Paula Bledsoe and Tanya Dupree who helped guide the group to postseason victories over Monroe and defending state champion East Lincoln.
The day after taking down the title defenders, Williamson was the final obstacle standing between the destined group and capturing the coveted championship.
“I remember the feeling when we went out on the court that night — and just the crowd. All the support that we had at South Johnston was always tremendous,” Watkins said of the Trojans fans who made the 120-mile trek to High Point. “Going out on the court and having all those people who had come up to support us and be a part of that was really, really special.”
Wood recalls Watkins being the determining factor in what was a tightly-contested final. After Beasley was sidelined by foul trouble in the second half, the star guard took control offensively.
“She would shoot from the top of the key and she was deadly,” Wood recalled of Watkins brilliance down the stretch. “The defense wouldn’t come out that far and she just kept shooting — I mean nothing but net.”
Watkins finished with a team-high 20 points, accompanied by Beasley’s 18, to seal the 52-49 win and set the stage for a party never seen before in Johnston County.
“It was awesome coming back, when we got back to school, the parking lot was packed with people waiting to see us,” said Watkins. “It was a grand welcoming.”
Meanwhile, Wood recalls a similar scene stating, “Not a lot of people in this world, or that are even in athletics, get to experience that. That was very special to be able to get off a bus and seeing all those cheering people. We were very blessed to have had that in our lives.”
A journey to ‘last forever’
A close-knit bunch, who strummed guitars and sung their favorite melodies on hotel balconies during the historic playoff run, now boasts one of just two championship banners dressing the walls inside South Johnston gym.
“I don’t think that, unless you’ve ever been part of a team like that, you can really understand what it’s like,” said Wood.
Still residing in Benson, Wood refers to the 28-1 season as “one of the most special years of life” and it resulted in a partial basketball scholarship with Campbell University.
Watkins would eventually join Wood in Buies Creek the following season, by way of a full scholarship, and proceed to have a standout career as a player, then coach. She was inducted into the Campbell Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017 and now serves as the university’s associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator.
Beasley went on to become one of the best collegiate hoopers ever, and is still the only player in North Carolina State history to lead the team in scoring and rebounding all four seasons. In 1980, Benson proclaimed May 17 as “Genia Beasley Day” and she was later inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Running into former teammates who played and just rehashing it over the years has been something Watkins has cherished.
“I think I remember the journey more than anything else. It was just so much fun going through it,” said Watkins. “It’s a bond that you share with those people that lasts forever. Every single person that was on that team was a huge part of it. It takes a village to make something like that happen.”
-Dunn Daily Record