PELL CITY – The 1987-88 high school basketball season was special for the Pell City Lady Panthers, who ended that campaign with a state championship.
Nearly 30 years have passed since the Lady Panthers won that title, but for four members of the ’87-88 squad and their coach, the memories came flooding back Friday night as they were recognized during halftime of the Pell City-Childersburg game.
Larry Slater, head coach of the championship team, came back for the ceremony, along with players Danielle Fields Frye, Tonya Tice Peoples, Melissa Purvis McClain and Erica Collins Johnson.
Slater coached two years at Pell City and had a record of 55-3 (26-1 and 29-2). For the next 22 years, he coached basketball at Wallace State.
“Pell City and Wallace were two wonderful places for me,” he said. “I had great kids playing for me. The girls at Pell City would always want me to open the gym at night. That’s heaven for a coach. I would open the gym for them, and they were so special. They have provided me with some wonderful memories.”
Today, Slater is back in his hometown of Cotaco between Hartsville and Huntsville.
“That’s where I graduated from high school,” he said. “It is just so awesome to be back here tonight and see the girls and see this beautiful facility they now have. We played our home games over at the old high school gym. This is nice here.”
Slater said he had never run into a group of girls that was as hungry as the 1988 squad.
“I had coached Tonya Tice and Danielle Fields in AAU basketball,” he said. “When Mike Tice took the football job here at Pell City, he called me and wanted me to come interview for the girls basketball job. I was actually in Oxford coaching at an AAU national basketball tournament.
Slater said everywhere he goes, people tell him the 1988 state championship game pitting Pell City against Hartselle was the greatest game they had ever seen. While Slater was coaching the Lady Panthers, his daughter, Jenice Slater, was a starter for Hartselle.
Pell City trailed by two points with time running out, but Tonya Tice nailed a trey at the buzzer for a Pell City win.
“I got through that because Jenice won a state title with Hartselle as a freshman,” he said. “And Hartselle had a chance to hire me on two different occasions and did not. So that’s what I use to motivate myself.”
Slater said he could not say enough good things about his 1988 players.
“They have excelled in everything they’ve done as they’ve grown into women,” he said.
Tonya Tice Peoples, who was a freshman on that 1988 team, was thrilled to be back and visiting with her teammates.
“It’s all about seeing my teammates,” she said. “It’s awesome just to be back in Pell City. It’s good memories.”
At one time Peoples was a coach. She and her family live in Oxford, where she still teaches. She has two sons.
Danielle Fields Frye was a junior on the team. She said it was great to be back with her teammates 30 years later.
“It’s like we are able to pick up right where we left off,” she said. “Everyone has big smiles, good memories of all these grand things we did and accomplished. People around here still seem to appreciate it. We packed gyms out everywhere we went. Our fan base was tremendous.”
Frye and her family live in Indianapolis. She has two daughters.
Melissa Purvis McClain was also a junior on the team. She still lives in Pell City. The only time she left was when she went off to college.
“I feel just like the rest of these ladies,” she said. “It is memories no one can ever take away from us.”
Erica Collins Johnson was a junior on the team, and it was a turning point in her life.
“After we won the state championship, my mother, Alice Collins, passed away a few months later,” Johnson said. “My dad and I were just talking about how we could see her face that day we won. There was just a genuine smile on her face. Tonight has just brought back a lot of beautiful memories of my mother.”
One thing the four ladies agreed on Friday night was, “We are family.”
Reach Gary Hanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.