Family atmosphere plays key role in Lady Bulldog basketball’s first ever state title


Meghan Oros

The Lady Bulldogs celebrate their state championship as the final seconds tick away. At the end of the bench, Hannah Claire Stephens hugs Reese Underwood.

Getting on the bus to head to the state tournament was a small moment in the context of the whole trip to Murfreesboro.

After all, the Lady Bulldogs held up the state championship trophy five days later.

But if you happened to be there to watch the team exit the building through a tunnel of cheering students and staff, you would have seen two of the most iconic – albeit, smallest – parts of the Bearden girls basketball team on either end of the procession.

Landon Underwood was ahead of everyone heading to the bus with a pillow clutched in his arms, and his sister Reese was right behind the final players, pulling two rolling suitcases.

Just two of the team’s biggest fans getting ready for a week of basketball they’d surely never forget.

Coach Justin Underwood’s veteran group won Bearden’s first ever girls basketball state championship in March with a 52-34 win over Farragut, and it would be impossible to separate the family atmosphere surrounding the program from their sustained success.

Coach Underwood and his family have always been close with the players, but perhaps no class has made tighter bonds with Reese and Landon than this year’s senior class. 

The girls have been role models for Coach Underwood’s kids the past four years as they’ve grown up alongside the girls in his program helping to develop both of them as fans, students, and individuals. 

“It’s a great opportunity and chance for my kids to be around young adults to look up to, but also they treasure and just love running around, whether it’s chasing them or watching them at games,” Coach Underwood said. 

But that influence goes both ways as everyone in the Underwood family has helped the girls throughout their time in the program, growing them as individuals both on and off the court. 

“They had a huge impact on us,” said senior Jenn Sullivan, who was named Miss Basketball in Tennessee after the tournament. “At the beginning of the season, we’d go over to Underwood’s house and we’d have a team thing and we’d go over there for a Christmas party.

“His wife Beth was involved with our program a lot, and Underwood’s parents were there supporting us and that was just always very special to us.”

Senior Bailey Burgess, who hit four 3-pointers in the state title game, said she found the Underwoods’ influence on her to be just as great as Coach Underwood says the players’ influence has been on Reece and Landon.

They’re a great family, great role models to look up to, Beth and Justin Underwood,” Burgess said. “They were just great people to be with and look up to.”

Much of that family atmosphere started with the Underwoods’ decision to include Reese and Landon in so many of the team’s activities.

“I would say having his kids there and having his wife there a lot of the time really incorporated the family aspect of our team, and we all felt more connected because of it,” senior Hannah Claire Stephens said.

The bond that the girls have had with Coach Underwood and his kids grew over the years making them a tight knit group.

“They felt like little siblings to us,” Stephens said. “A lot of the time, Reese would shoot basketball with us before practice, and we’d like to ask her about her days and her friends and all of her school stuff.”

When the final seconds ticked away in the state championship game, Reese and Landon were right in the midst of all the excitement – celebrating with their role models.

“The girls do a fantastic job of making [Reese] feel a part of the group, and now that she’s getting a little bit older and later into elementary school, she really wants to emulate them more,” Coach Underwood said. “She wants to go shoot with them or chase them around so I think the older she gets, it gives her a more specific view of what she wants to be.

“[Beth and I] talked a lot about how we couldn’t ask for better examples.”