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All-American

Sutton drops monster year to gain First Team selection

Tusculum University senior Maddie Sutton, a former Heritage Lady Mountaineer, led the nation in two key statistical categories to earn First Team All-American selection. Photos curtesy of Tusculum Athletics

By Stefan Cooper
Editor
Blount Press Row

In her Tusculum University bio, she lists Scooby Snacks as her go-to midnight treat.

Yeah, that fits.

Maddie Sutton also possesses the rare and uber unique talent of being able to sing with her mouth closed.

Maddie Sutton

On the basketball court this past season, the Pioneer senior and former Heritage Lady Mountaineer was the feel-good Hollywood movie of local kid makes good going full speed in real time.

Pacing the nation in two key statistical categories, Sutton was named to the Division II Conference Commissioners Association All-American First Team Tuesday morning. For a super-athletic 6-foot forward who didn’t average in double figures until her senior year, it was a whirlwind finish.

“It was the most unreal thing,” Sutton said. “I woke up (Tuesday) morning and was doing my thing, and I saw a notification on social media. I said, ‘No way! Oh, my gosh!'”

Sutton led Division II with 335 total rebounds on the year, a 14.6 per game number that ranked second in average. Paired with 17.3 points per game, a second nation-leading statistic emerged, and this one was a real doozy.

All those points and rebounds produced 20 double-doubles in 23 games, a Division II-best that ranked second to only Alexus Dye of Division I Troy across all divisions of women’s college basketball.

Dye finished with 21.

Sutton carves a path to the basket against Newberry this season.

Sutton dropped 16 of those doubles in consecutive games.

In a midseason, double-overtime loss to Carson-Newman, Sutton set the Tusculum record for rebounds in a game with 25.

The D2CCA First Team selection was followed this morning by a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-American honorable mention.

One of Stephen and Lori Sutton’s nine children, Sutton did it all while graduating from Tusculum in three years. She played her final season with the Pioneers as a graduate student and will soon receive her masters in business administration.

Just wow.

“It’s crazy when you look at her stats before this year,” Tusculum coach Meagan Price said.

Sutton left Heritage four seasons ago one of the most physically-prepared athletes for the college game he’s ever coached, Lady Mountaineer coach Rick Howard said.

“If you’d seen her as a freshman, she was skinny,” he said. “She’d never lifted any weights or anything like that. She just kept getting bigger and stronger. She wanted to succeed and she wanted to play college ball.”

Listed at an even 6 foot, Sutton was seldom the tallest player on the floor this season.

Howard’s spirited practices and driving work ethic had a lot to do with it, Sutton said.

“That guy is like a second dad to me. He’s the reason,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “I still hear his voice in the back of my head.”

After a 1,000-points, 1,000-rebounds career at Heritage, a run that included the title of three-point champion at the jamboree her senior season, Sutton’s college days opened modestly in Greeneville. She raked off 13 rebounds in her college debut, going on to finish her freshman season in 2017 with a 4.7 points per game scoring average.

Then came an injury-slowed sophomore season, one where Sutton said she began to wonder if all the hard work was worth it. Those feelings didn’t hang around for long.

“I have such a passion for this game I didn’t know I had when I finished high school,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be mad at myself if I don’t give it a shot.'”

Howard got a phone call from his former charge that winter.

Sutton with Heritage coach Rick Howard on the night during her senior season with the Lady Mountaineers when she was honored for reaching 1,000 career points. Photo by Jolanda Jansma

“We talked and I told her, ‘It’s always tough as a sophomore,'” he said. “‘It was tough your sophomore year here. Your turn will come.’

“When Maddie made her mind up, she would fight you. I knew that going into her college career. She would not back down.”

In the offseason between her sophomore and junior year, Sutton said she got back in the weight room. She started running again. Things improved that junior season, one where she got her first start with the Pioneers. Prior to the start of her senior campaign, Tusculum brought in a new coach.

If you’ve ever wondered if the right coach, at just the right time with just the right player can really make a difference, here’s your answer.

When she took the Tusculum job last May, Price said her initial assessment of the Pioneers wasn’t centered on how well they could play.

“I walked in and said, ‘Who are the leaders?'” she said. “I wanted to see what Maddie could actually do.

“She was a leader in practice, high energy. She was fun to be around.”

In a senior season for the ages, Sutton’s final campaign with the Pioneers included a SAC tournament-record 12-for-12 night at the free-throw line and a Tusculum single-game record 25 rebounds.

Prior to Price’s arrival, Sutton had played largely with her back to the basket. The athlete and perimeter threat wasn’t being fully realized.

“We put in a lot plays where she could rip and drive to the basket (from the free-throw line),” Price said.

That, and a low, preseason conference ranking pretty much did the rest.

“We were picked to finish seventh (in the South Atlantic Conference)” Price said.

Not one Pioneer was named to a preseason all-conference team. Not even an honorable mention.

“I told them, ‘You don’t have to have other people believe in you; you just have to believe in yourselves,'” Price said.

After the loss to Carson-Newman, it all came together, she said. From that point on, Sutton just took off.

“Maddie really hates to lose,” Howard said.

The double-doubles began to pile up in bunches, Price said. In February, Sutton pumped in 20 points in a game for the first time. She did it six more times over the next eight, including 32- and 33-point career-best outbursts.

“I’m watching her on film and I’m thinking, ‘How is she doing that!'” Price said.

Wait. There’s more.

Twenty double-doubles in 23 games! Sixteen of them in a row!

The low regard afforded the Pioneers in preseason polling had really hit home. By the conference tournament earlier this month, Tusculum wasn’t mad. They were lit.

Seniors Jalia Arnwine (13.6 points) and Brianna Dixon (10.5) had blossomed into dependable second and third scorers, and Sutton had a finish left in the tank that was really going to knock ’em out.

Tusculum steamed through the conference tournament in a dominant display, knocking off Lincoln Memorial University, 59-47, in the championship game. Over the three-game run, Sutton’s numbers were mind-blowing, including a tournament record 12-for-12 outing from the free-throw line in a quarterfinal win over Newberry.

The title game with LMU was really a show, the former Lady Mountaineer dropping game-highs of 27 points and 11 rebounds.

Here’s the killer, though.

In three games, Sutton played all but 14 seconds of 200 minutes and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

“I wish I had one thing as to why it all happened,” Sutton said, “but I’m surrounded by a lot of people who believe in me.”

Price doesn’t want to see it end.

With the pandemic and last year’s national tournament cancellation, the NCAA granted all college athletes an additional year of eligibility. There’s also the carrot of another Lady Mountaineer arriving in Greeneville next season. Heritage guard Lexi Patty signed with the Pioneers in December.

“Lexi has the chance to come in and play right away,” Price said, “especially with that jumper.”

Would Sutton consider one more year, for old time’s sake?

Not likely.

“I said, ‘But you have another year!” Price quipped.

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