When Daryl Hamby took over at Weaver High School in 1999, he was pleasantly surprised to find his new basketball team sported frontline players who checked in at 6-foot-6, 6-5 and 6-3.
For a Class 4A squad, that worked just nicely.
After that, though, things began to change. Weaver had already felt the sting as Fort McClellan downsized in preparation for base closure, as the government's decision to move thousands of soldiers, civilians and their families to Missouri. When the post actually closed its doors, the athletics programs at Weaver, as well as other county schools, took a big hit.
'The next year, my biggest kid was 5-11," Hamby said. "There was such a drop in athletes. It was directly related to Fort McClellan closing. Most of the people had a dad in the military or they worked there."
Just before the base closure, Weaver moved up to Class 4A, which is in the upper half of classifications of the Alabama High School Athletic Association. The unfortunate thing for Weaver, however, was that the classifications are adjusted every two years, meaning they played in a big classification with a dwindling student population.
Schools such as Saks, Jacksonville, and Anniston were also hit by the closure, but Weaver seemed to be the place where the bulk of the military children attended.
"Weaver was the transition school with all the Army brats," Hamby said. "We had the majority."
Weaver principal Frances Shipp has seen the Bearcats adjust from a vantage point of coach, as well as administrator. She served as a coach for 16 years, stepping down when she became assistant principal in 1999.
Back then, Weaver boasted more than 600 students from seventh to 12th grade.
"As the closing began, we began losing students," Shipp said. "I guess the lowest point was about 450-460 students. They'd reclassify and we'd be half a student into the (next) classification."
After getting up to 4A, Weaver has dropped back to 3A and settled in there.
"It was very difficult," Shipp said. "It was a hard time for everything — everything short of our wrestling."
Terry Willingham served as an assistant then head football coach for 20 years, leaving in 1999. He witnessed many ups and downs involving military families.
"You'd have kids, then all the sudden a family would be transferred and athletes would leave," Willingham said. "You'd have no warning, no idea it was going to happen or when it was going to happen. Some did graduate, but most moved on before they graduated. Keeping them from seventh to 12th grade was very difficult."
Hamby said the school is still catching up to the losses from the closure in some ways. With the losses, coaches had to be creative in finding ways to win.
"In lower classifications, you've got to start developing athletes when they're young," Hamby said. "When we had Fort McClellan, we were blessed with athletes. You'd always have a good rotation. Since that went away, you've got to build athletes. You've got to see who's got potential and take them and build them up."
Willingham said the association with the fort meant there were certain things coaches just had to accept.
"You just go in and do the best job you possibly can," Willingham said. "If (players) are there and develop, it's fantastic. We had some very good athletes that we could win with, then in their junior or senior year, they'd move out and there was absolutely nothing you could do with it.
"It comes with the job. It comes with the area and school. There were other schools that had kids in there. There were other schools affected with it like us."
Shipp said there's been something of a resurgence, although that translates to just an additional 20-30 students, but doubts it will ever reach the numbers before the fort closed.
There was a lesson to be learned in how to deal with it, she said.
"You just worked as hard as you can work, get kids pumped up the best can and try to pull together as a team and give it all you've got," Shipp said. "You work hard and hope success comes from that and people don't get discouraged."
Coming Tuesday: Expatriates say Fort McClellan is a community they hope finds its way back to life.
10 years laterEditor's note: Wednesday marks the 10-year anniversary of Fort McClellan closing in Anniston and moving to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
In a four-part series, The Star looks at where we are and where we're headed a decade after losing what was once the economic engine of northeast Alabama.
Part 1: Our loss, their gain: 10 years later, Fort McClellan's move continues to bless Missouri