By Collin Brooks
ETSU women’s point guard Tianna Tarter might just be Superwoman.
It isn’t only her recent feats — being the first women’s basketball player in ETSU history to be named conference player of the week three times-in-a-row, reaching the 1,000 point club just 65 games into her career and being the only player in the nation to score 35 points while gaining five rebounds, five assists and five steals in the same game this season — that validate such a bold statement.
She and the male version of the D.C. Comics character share another resemblance in the way that they carry themselves. The two are unassuming, until they put their uniforms on.
“We tell them all the time, that when you put on a uniform, it’s like Superman putting on a cape,” ETSU coach Brittney Ezell said. “Clark Kent was the most mild mannered character ever created, but when he became Superman he was bold and strong and that is what she can be.
“And I think she embraces the duality. She can go out there and be this larger than life athlete, but off the floor she is still just Tianna, who is going to go and pick up her little cousin…and beg me for candy out of my drawer. She is still a kid, and she has that very innocent nature and I think that is what is neat about her on and off the floor.”
Ezell said that Tarter has never once been demanding or asked for the superstar treatment that some of her accomplishments may warrant. Tarter became only the fourth player since 1988 to be named Southern Conference Player of the Week for three consecutive weeks.
“If she continues on this path, they are going to have to rename the award,” said Ezell barely breaking a smile.
But the humble Johnson City native just brushes the honors to the back, similar to how her blonde tipped dreadlocks sit as she peaks from under her ETSU baseball cap.
“Those points and awards don’t really mean much to me,” Tarter said. “I just want to do whatever I have to do to help my team win. Player of the week, it’s great, but I think there is more that I can do for my team.”
The biggest thing Tarter does is take over when it’s needed. Tarter connected on a game-winning lay-up at Campbell University on Dec. 6, before scorching Vanderbilt for a career-high 35 points in a close loss. She followed that up with a 30-point outing in a win against Tennessee Tech, all while being covered in the blue and gold.
However, the number on that uniform has a bit of sentimental meaning. After her freshman year, Tarter switched her number from 14 to 15, a number that represents the passing of her father, Lanny Tarter Jr.
“I am 15 because my dad died on May 15,” Tarter said. “I just know that I am playing for him every time.”
Tarter was 13 years old when her father passed away. The two were on a trip in Murfreesboro with her AAU team. But only hours after her father’s passing, Tianna was suiting up and getting ready to play in a championship contest.
“It was hard, because he would yell at me every game and so I was just trying to imagine that, him still there, that one game, just screaming at me and telling me what to do,” Tarter said. “I still played, cause I knew that is what he wanted me to do. He taught me how to play this game when I was younger.”
Tarter said that she thought about giving up the game, since her father wouldn’t be there to push her and continue to teach her the game that he first shared with her growing up. But her family and friends stepped in and guided her to return to the floor, where she felt comfortable.
“She was able to forget what happened, there for a little while, and she played inspired and she played like what you all are seeing now,” said her AAU coach Michael Potts, who reluctantly recalled the morning Tarter came beating on his door saying there was something wrong with her father.
Potts is now the coach at Morristown East, but during a stop in Johnson City to take on Science Hill, Tarter was outside of her former coaches locker room waiting for a warm embrace.
The two remain in contact, but Potts remembers her father well, recalling a conversation the two had the night before he passed away about the young girl’s future.
“Lanny got it started,” Potts said through a smile. “He could see, not that she was going to be a college basketball player, but that she loved basketball. It’s her safe haven.”
Her current coach agreed.
“It’s her escape at times, it was her way of coping and dealing with a bad hand,” Ezell said.
“I credit (her success) a lot to her grandparents and coach (Keith) Turner and the staff at Science Hill for taking her under their collective wings and helping her.” She is one of those kids, as a coach you aren’t supposed to say you have favorites or pull hard for a kid, but you really do pull for them when you know their story.”
But her story isn’t done. After winning the awards, Ezell said Tarter was the first player to workouts on Monday.
“She does an hour-and-a-half workout on her own, watches film and she came in again (Tuesday) and she is the first one in here today,” Ezell said. “When your best player is your hardest worker, that sets the tone for everyone else. And she is earning everything that she has been granted – not given –
everyday and I think that is what people need to appreciate the most.
“They aren’t just giving it to her because she is Tianna Tarter from Science Hill, she is earning it, and it’s hard to do.”
And that hard work started when she was younger, playing against boys in basketball and football.
“I use to hangout with my brother when I was young and I think that has helped me to be who I am today,” Tarter said. “Playing football, I think that helped me gain a lot of confidence.”
That same confidence helps her to excel on the floor, even if she is reserved off of it.
“When I step out on the court, I know that my family is watching and old fans from Science Hill are watching and I just try to put them in my heart and just play for them,” Tarter said. “Because almost every game, Coach E is talking about play for who you love. So every time I am on the floor, that is what I am doing, playing for my family, ETSU and the fans around here.”
And the community that she plays in is perfect for Tarter.
“Tianna could have played at a power-5 school, no question,” Ezell said. “But Tianna is best suited in this community, in this environment, surrounded by a village that’s going to make sure she gets everything that she needs… she needed ETSU just as much as we needed her.
“I think it’s been a perfect fit for her and I hope it’s something that the people of Johnson City enjoy for the next two seasons.”