Thursday is the first day of play for the 36th annual Orangefield Varsity Basketball Tournament.

This year, there will be a face missing in the crowd. Retired longtime Bobcat Coach Bill Tennison passed away in September after a courageous battle with cancer.

To honor his years of dedication, the tournament is being re-named the Bill Tennison Memorial Basketball Tournament.

“This year will be sad, knowing we won’t see him in his Orange windbreaker, eating his bag of popcorn, visiting with former and current players,” said former Lady Bobcat Kim Peveto Richard.

Tennison started coaching at Orangefield in 1976 and continued through 1999. He mainly coached girl’s basketball but also football and track.

Orangefield Superintendent Phillip Welch assisted Tennison with basketball in 1977.
Richard said, “Coach Tennison was my Jr.  high coach as well as my varsity coach. I guess you could say he was my coach from seventh grade through 12th, 1977 through 1983.”

She continued, “While playing under Coach Tennison, I never realized we were a small 3A school.  He filled our schedule with 4A and 5A teams. We competed in tournaments in Louisiana where we faced state champ teams. Coach Tennison taught us to believe that our hard work would pay off.”

 “He was a tough Coach but you always knew where you stood with him,” said Richard. His expectations were high; of you individually and collectively. He taught us to represent our school with dignity and pride.”

“He was definitely an old school coach. It was all about hard work and discipline,” said former Lady Bobcat Barbara Hickey. Hickey played basketball at Orangefield under Tennison 1984-88.

“We knew when we got on the floor there was not going to be any other team that was in better shape, or more disciplined. They may have more talent, but there was no way anybody worked any harder than we did, and I can say that without any hesitation whatsoever.”

“He brought something out of us that we didn’t know we had inside of us, a determination and will. You played through so much pain; and you wanted to,” said Hickey.

Richard said he also taught them to respect the referees and their decisions, right or wrong. Disagreement with a referee meant bleacher laps, no matter who was in the right.

Tennison often gave Richard a key to the gymnasium during the summer; so girls could work out or scrimmage. “He trusted us and taught us responsibility.”

“We had our own version of what is now called ‘Summer League.’  He called it Grapefruit League,” said Richard. “The seniors would ‘draft’ the incoming freshman and other underclassman.  We would play basketball on Friday nights during the summer.”

“He was such a huge influence, not just in sports, but in life. He taught life lessons,” said Hickey.

According to Welch, he modeled the Christian way without pushing religion on the students and helped promote the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“My father passed away the summer between seventh and eighth grade when I was 12 years old,” said Dean Pickard, former Orangefield student. “At that age, whether I knew it or not, I desperately needed positive male role models.

Pickard said, “There is a scripture about a man “standing in the gap” where needed. Coach Tennison was that bridge in my adolescent years… I don’t ever remember “Coach” not being a fixture in my daily life between school and church.”

“He was one of those [coaches] that easily could have been a second parent,” said Hickey.  “I can’t say enough good about him.”

 “There would have been no Barbara ‘Sky’ Hickey without Coach Tennison,” said Hickey. “I would have been happy and content just being good enough. He made sure that didn’t happen and I was pushed to the next level.”

Hickey earned the nickname ‘Sky,’ because she had a 35 inch vertical leap. Hickey said when she went to her first practice as a Lamar Lady Card, which wasn’t much compared to what she was used to, she thought, “Well, they’re just taking it easy on us because it’s the first day.” The same level of practices continued on day two, day three, and the rest. She started to panic thinking she was going to get out of shape. Hickey was mortified at the thought of ‘Coach’ coming to see her play, while she huffed and puffed up and down the court–so she started to run. “I ran to class, to the dining hall, anywhere on campus I went.” She couldn’t stand the thought of possibly disappointing her mentor.

Hickey, who now works at Chevron Phillips in Orange, is still the 5th highest scorer in the history of Lamar basketball, 20 years after the end of her basketball career.

She re-enrolled at Lamar recently. Hickey played basketball for four years as a Lady Card, but never graduated from college. “That’s one of the things Coach Tennison would be the most proud of. Yeah, he was proud of me as a player, but he always wanted me to get that degree.”

“It was a good decision to rename the tournament in honor of  Coach Tennison,” said Richard. “As a player, the OHS Basketball Tournament was one of the highlights of the year. The gym was always buzzing during those three days. Coach Tennison took pride in recruiting teams…and running a smooth tournament. He had it down to a science.”

This year’s tournament is Dec. 9-11, at the Bobcat Gymnasium. A ceremony honoring Coach Tennison is scheduled prior to the varsity girls’ first tournament game, Thursday.
The ceremony should begin at 5:45 p.m. Hickey will speak on the players’ behalf.

“Great coaches are born, not made,” said Hickey. “People always ask, what makes a great coach? Is it the win, loss column? Is it how many kids come out and sign up to play?”

Hickey said, “Last year, I was able to tell him how much I appreciated him and how much I loved him. To me, that was the ultimate mark. When you’re retired and you’re not coaching anymore and you have all these middle-aged ex-athletes coming up to you telling you, ‘Thank you coach, you meant the world to me.’ That’s the mark of a great coach.

About Penny LeLeux

Penny has worked at The Record Newspapers since 2006. A member of the editorial staff, she has "done everything but print it." Most frequently she writes entertainment reviews and human interest stories, with a little paranormal thrown in from time to time.She has been a lifelong member of the Orangefield community.