By Trey Williams
Thomas Gouge learned to shoot from “way downtown” in the middle of nowhere.
Gouge, the leading scorer on Daniel Boone’s only state tournament basketball team and a record-setting 3-point shooter at Cleveland State Community College, grew up an only child in Fall Branch, where you could feel like the only child in the community.
But there was a basketball goal in the driveway and a father (Tom), who’d played football on a state championship team for the legendary Ralph Cummins at Clintwood (Va.), eager to rebound.
“My inspiration was really – as a kid – my dad,” Gouge said. “I didn’t have many neighbors that wanted to play sports. So my dad was always with me as a kid, you know, from dusk till dawn, shooting hoops. He’d stay out with me till 8, 9 or 10 o’clock at night shooting and rebounding for me.
“We had a basketball goal in the driveway. I’d try to skip supper sometimes to try and get up shots. There’d be nights I’d probably shoot 600, 700 or 800 shots, you know.”
Gouge’s driveway, you might say, led to Murfreesboro for legendary coach Bobby Snyder, who made his lone state tournament appearance when Gouge was a senior during the 1998-99 season.
And the Trailblazers put up a fight against Marshall County and 6-foot-10 Marcus Haislip, who, after playing at Tennessee, was drafted No. 13 overall by Milwaukee three years later.
Gouge scored 21 points, including a 3-pointer that gave the Trailblazers a 32-25 lead in the third quarter, but Marshall County caught fire and pulled out a 54-47 victory.
“We watched film on Haislip blocking 3-pointers with a foot in the paint,” Gouge said. “He had crazy length, crazy athleticism. So all week before the state tournament – Coach Snyder figured he’d be guarding me and followed me around in practice with a broomstick, having me shooting over it, working on getting a little more arch. Sure enough, at the start, Haislip was in my face. But it helped. He guarded me the first half and I think I had 16 or 17 at the half on him.
“And they switched off and put a no-help on me and a shadow guy on me. And they put Haislip up at the top of the key and he was guarding our point guard, Justin Humphries. Haislip was about a foot taller and Justin had a hard time seeing through him.”
Tennessee coach Jerry Green saw Gouge that day. He wanted Gouge to go to North Idaho Junior College, and said a walk-on invite – or better – could materialize in two years. Gouge said he also had an offer from Appalachian State during his senior year of high school, but he ended up having to go to junior college.
Gouge made 234 3-pointers in two seasons at Cleveland State. The previous school record had been 92.
“We clinched a regional berth with a win at Walters State my sophomore year,” Gouge said. “I think I went 9 for 12 from three that game. I think I scored 36.”
Gouge’s career high in JUCO was 41 points at Wallace State.
“With three and a half minutes to go in the game (regulation), I think I had nine points,” Gouge said. “And in the final three minutes and then the five-minute overtime, I believe I scored 32. I just got hot from three.
“I know we were down 18 and I had nine points with 3:30 to go. And we came back and tied it and put in overtime and won it.”
Gouge, who was recruited by Elon, UNC Wilmington and Chattanooga in junior college, tore a patella tendon in his left knee with three games left in his sophomore season. He went for an “open gym” that summer at Chattanooga before he’d enrolled and sustained a fractured ankle on the same leg that’d endured the knee injury.
Perhaps burnout and a certain amount of writing on the wall might’ve played into a somewhat hasty decision too, but Gouge called it quits and began a baseball card business that became quite lucrative.
But Gouge couldn’t put a price tag on the memories he made on the hardwood – from the time he was in elementary school. He was the “outcast” that played with a number of players from Gray, who went on to comprise the nucleus of those Boone teams.
“I played for one of the Gray teams,” Humphries said, “and Thomas played for one of the Fall Branch teams. So we played against each other, you know, for as long as I can remember. And, and to be honest, he was one of our first friends – or my first friends – that was from a different school. Actually, I remember he spent the night with us one night over at one of our buddies’ house. He was the first person we’d ever had over, you know, that wasn’t a Gray kid.”
A decade later, in a do-or-die sectional semifinal in Greeneville, Gouge came up with a steal and passed to Humphries, and before you knew it, the ‘Blazers clinched Snyder’s coveted state berth with a win against Gatlinburg-Pittman.
“Yeah, I got a steal in the fourth quarter or overtime in the backcourt and kicked it up to the top of the key to Justin and he hit a big three,” Gouge said.
Humphries, the quintessential floor general, said it might’ve been Gouge’s first career steal.
“It was probably his first steal,” Humphries said, “and if not his first steal, it was his first assist.”
Actually, Humphries and Snyder have both noted what a fierce competitor Gouge is. Humphries said he will be reminded when their respective girls basketball teams, David Crockett (Gouge) and Boone (Humphries), clash in a Big Five Conference game on Friday at Crockett.
Snyder mentioned Gouge on a short list of great shooters he’d coached in the same breath with Charlie “Toonie” Cash.
“Thomas was one of the best perimeter shooters I ever had,” Snyder said in January of 2022.
Gouge went 4-for-8 from behind the arc and scored 21 points in a 55-52 upset of T.W. Josey (Augusta, Ga.) in the first round of the 1998 Arby’s Classic. Josey had been to the state quarterfinals the previous season and advanced to the state semifinals that season.
“Coach Snyder was known for Arby’s upsets,” Gouge said. “Coach Snyder was a great mentor. He was worried more about what you were doing off the court than on the court, really. He wanted you to be a good person. He taught me a lot about the game and he taught me even more about life.”
Snyder was like a second father. Of course, as Gouge will humbly tell you, he had a great father who was like a second coach.