CHECOTAH — The new gym, easily seen off Interstate 40, stands as a beacon of hope for basketball programs that have seen better times.
Construction is in progress on the new athletic facility, which has a target completion date of November. It will replace 48-year-old Truman Dixon Field House.
Figuratively, the current facility has had revolving doors around the coaches offices, a far cry since the days of Dixon, whose career spanned 36 seasons, most on the girls side.
Rick Ott, a Checotah native, had been approved to take over the girls program in April but left in mid-June. Ott was to replace Mickey Duncan after Duncan replaced Neil Hays when Hays left at midterm. Duncan left Checotah to take the job at Keys. Vaughn Blankenship replaced Ott, making the fourth girls coach in a year.
Jason Donathan, the school’s assistant athletic director, said the program has its share of trying times. Ten coaches in 16 years.
“We thought we had our guy (with Ott), but he decided he was going to retire,” he said.
“I think a part of our problem has been because of our facilities. We have one of the poorer facilities in Class 4A basketball. Now, we’re going to have one of the better ones. We just need someone to be committed to us.”
That someone may well be Vaughn Blankenship, a man whose parents moved to the area a few years back.
Blankenship said he’s not looking to leave.
“I want to be here until I retire,” he said. “This is my dream job.”
Meanwhile, the boys program has had similar issues. Jason Dowdy replaced Brooks Cawhorn as head coach after last season, becoming the ninth coach in 16 years. Cawhorn left to take a job at Webbers Falls, closer to his native Gore.
The 86-year-old Dixon, who won a state championship on the boys side in 1969 and took numerous girls teams to the state tournament in his reign, didn’t want to point fingers at why the girls program has gone through the coaching changes.
“I don’t want to blame any particular thing on why coaches have gone. I don’t have a good answer for it,” he said. But, noting what he described as a significant difference in how kids respond to discipline today, he added, “it wasn’t the same when I coached.”
Donathan said he is confident the boys’ program is “on the upswing.”
“Brooks left the program in better shape than when he found it,” he said. “He was making progress and had made good strides.”
Strides are being made on the new facility, which is 120,000 square feet. The gym is 32,000 square feet and will seat 1,850. The facility will also include a walking track and a band room.
Truman Dixon Field House, home to the Wildcats since 1964, seats 600 people.
“It was shoulder-to-shoulder seating in there,” Donathan said. “It was uncomfortable. We think the new facility will be a showpiece. We’re hopeful we can host a regional tournament.”
Dixon hopes Blankenship brings back stability to the program he coached until his retirement in 1990.
“I saw his teams play in two different tournaments at a smaller school (Panola) last year,” he said. “I recommended him for the job. He’s not going to be a fly-by-night. He’s what we’ve needed at Checotah.”
Blankenship looks forward to building his program.
“I was telling my dad that if you’re going to build a program, you don’t want to use a job to go somewhere else,” he said. “When my son gets in the seventh grade, I’ll switch over and coach boys. But that won’t be for a long time as he’s 7 months old now.
“We’ve got new uniforms and we’re going to have the new gym. All we need is players and we’ve got a ton of them. I just hope to do something that makes Checotah proud.”
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