Across the court stood Greene County, with as many players who would have to duck to go through a 6-foot doorframe as could walk upright through it.
And that’s not even mentioning Neiko Hunter, a four-star prospect ranked among the top 100 players in the country.
But Dale Welsh knew Piedmont had a chance. The now-retired coach of 30 years saw it years ago.
Under the guidance of coach Tommy Lewis, Piedmont led by one point going into the final quarter, only to fall 46-41 to the eventual state champions.
For that effort, which capped a 23-8 season, the Alabama Sports Writers Association named Lewis the Class 3A Coach of the Year. Lewis joins 13 locals earning all-state honors, including 2A girls Player of the Year Courtney Strain, who finished her career as the state’s all-time career leading scorer with 5,283 points.
Lewis’ coaching days started fresh out of high school.
As a freshman in college, he said he went to see Welsh at practice one day knowing coaching was what he wanted to do.
He never got up the nerve to ask Welsh if he could be an assistant.
But he didn’t have to.
“He ran me down in the parking lot,” Lewis said, “and that’s all I’ve ever done.
“(Welsh) was very important to me as a player, maybe even more so now.”
Welsh said he couldn’t recall the exact day in question, but he knew what brought him to that decision.
“Back in the old days, you just had one coach per school,” said Welsh, a longtime coach at Spring Garden and Cherokee County. “You wanted to get the right volunteer help.
“Asking (Lewis) to help me coach was one of the best things I did.”
Since then, Lewis had stops at Spring Garden, Cherokee County and Gaylesville — what many consider his best coaching effort, turning a downtrodden program into county champions.
Through all those coaching stops, Welsh has followed Lewis and said he still sees the same attributes that Lewis possessed as a player in his coaching.
“He was a great competitor as a player,” Welsh said. “I think that’s why he can pass that competitive spirit on to players better than anybody I’ve been around.
“... he does things now where he tries to control his actions. I can still see that he’s that same fired-up intense coach that he’s always been.”
After enduring six 20-loss seasons, Lewis took over Piedmont.
In his first season, he had the Bulldogs within one bucket of an appearance in the Northeast Regional. The next three years, they became a fixture on the floor at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
But this year was just a little more difficult than past years.
Piedmont won the Class 3A state football championship on Dec. 3, putting the basketball team well behind other teams in its area with respect to preparation for the season.
But football coach and athletics director Steve Smith said he knew that wouldn’t be a problem for Lewis.
“He was the biggest fan we had,” Smith said of Lewis, who is also a football assistant. “They could be others that wouldn’t have that feeling and would be thinking about all the time they’re losing. Not Tommy.”
Just more than a month after basketball practice started, Piedmont lost to Saks in the Calhoun County basketball tournament. The Wildcats went on to win the tournament title, but Piedmont went on to great things as well.
The Bulldogs lost only one more game before meeting Greene County, closing out the season with a 12-2 stretch.
“It’s more remarkable than most folks would ever realize,” Welsh said. “To me, I always need that three weeks to a month to get them doing what I wanted them to do.
“Coach Lewis does a lot better than I ever did to adjust to situations that are not exactly the way you wanted them to be. The way he adapted, I think, was a very remarkable thing.”
Along with the players, Smith gives a great deal of that credit to the coach he helped to hire four years ago.
“Nobody puts any more into it than Tommy Lewis,” he said. “I’ve seen him walk off the practice floor and drive two hours to scout a team that we might have a chance of playing at (the regional).
“He does everything he can to give our players the best chance to succeed.”