Some stand out more than others when I reflect on hundreds of basketball road trips over the years, especially the first one over four decades ago and the most recent, earlier this week in a magical night at the Corbin Arena.
My first basketball road trip outside Harlan County was a late winter drive to Union College in March of 1976 to watch the Cawood Trojans play in their first 13th Region Tournament. I was a seventh-grader at Hall Elementary School and my mom was a teacher at James A. Cawood High School, so we — my mom, dad and sister — were there to watch the Trojans make history.
We had moved to Browning Acres five years earlier, but this was the first time in the 10-year history of JACHS that the Trojans, then under the leadership of John D. Wilson, had advanced out of the district tournament. My mom and sister didn’t make many basketball trips, even across the street to Cawood, but everyone traveled on the opening night of the regional.
Cawood, which featured the senior backcourt tandem of David Parks and Mike Howard, won that night, then again in the semifinals against Jackson County before falling in a heartbreaker to Clay County in the finals when it was just me and my dad in the bleachers. It seemed then like it would only be a matter of time before Cawood made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
As it turns out, as anyone who has followed high school basketball knows, that wasn’t the case. Cawood had plenty of very good teams. Regional championships, however, were elusive.
There was 1978 when Greg Coldiron, Will Clem, Lynn Rhymer, Fred Sturgill and Husky Turner and a freshman named Phil Cox when the Trojans were a big favorite at 24-1 going into the regional before suffering the biggest upset in tournament history by falling to Pineville.
There was 1981 when Cox was a Mr. Basketball and led a late comeback that fell short in another championship loss to Clay County at Knox Central.
There was 1983 when a senior-dominated squad led by David Hensley, Everly Eads, Tony Sanford and Kevin Hatfield appeared to have Middlesboro beat in the finals before a slow clock keeper, at least that’s the way I remember it, gave the Jackets an extra shot in the closing seconds, forcing an overtime that led to another heartbreaking loss.
There was 1986 when Cawood, led by Nick Sanford, Garry Henson, Ronnie Ball, Sam Metcalfe and Tommy Hensley, had the ball and a one-point lead in the final minute at Middlesboro before Clay County rallied.
There were other close calls for the Trojans, including semifinal losses in 1977, 1982, 1987, 1990, 2001 and 2002.
It wasn’t just Cawood that had a hard time reaching the ultimate goal of getting to the state tournament. When the Trojans stumbled in 1978, Cumberland had a shot before falling to Clay County in the finals. Cumberland also had great teams in 1984 and 1985, with players like Lewis Morris, Richard Washington, Derrick Akal, Gary Amos, Paul Gaffney and Freddie Maggard, but lost to the Tigers both times.
Harlan made it to the finals in 1980 with Ronnie Morgan, Michael Rhodes, Jack Scalf and company but fell to Bell County.
The Green Dragons ended a 24-year drought for the county in 1993 when Charles Thomas and current Harlan County coach Michael Jones led the Dragons past Bell County, Clay County and Corbin. The Dragons, who also featured all-staters like Todd Cox and Casey Lester and future Tennessee Wesleyan standout Nathan Blanton, made it back in both 1995 and 1996.
Cumberland broke through in 2003 in the ultimate Cinderella story, opening the postseason with a losing record before catching fire at just the right time. The Redskins, led by coach Bill Scott and star guard Eddie Creech, along with standout forward Matt Haynes, knocked off Barbourville and Bell County in the regional tournament at Whitley County before upsetting Rockcastle County in the finals.
While those championships made going to the state tournament a lot more fun, it wasn’t quite the same as seeing the team you grew up following make it to the Sweet Sixteen.
Now that I work at Harlan County High School as a teacher after spending several years fighting for the construction of a new school when it was by no means a popular idea around the county, the disappointment of not seeing my alma mater get to Rupp Arena was soon replaced by the idea that Harlan County High School could eventually get there.
The Bears came close in 2013, falling to Clay County in the finals at the HCHS gym, and then started building again the next year with the current group of Black Bears.
It was a week I won’t forget, beginning with a narrow escape in the first round against Lynn Camp followed by an overtime thriller against South Laurel, a team that made it all the way to the state final four a year earlier. Harlan County was an underdog in the championship game against a Corbin team that had handed the Bears two of their three losses in the regular season.
A blowout win would have been less stressful, but there was no way that would happen. As it turned out, the Bears had to play their best game of the year, likely the best game in the history of the program, just to knock off Corbin and earn that elusive first trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
While it was one of the best weeks for me as a sports writer, it was not a good one from a personal standpoint. Mom couldn’t make the road trip to Corbin last week due to a recent illness, not that she was that much of a basketball fan anyway and probably hasn’t been to any games since her granddaughters stopped playing. She may have made at least one trip last week though, if she could, to see me receive the 13th Region Media Lifetime Achievement Award. It would have been fitting for her to be there since she was always my ultimate editor, from the early years at the Enterprise when I often needed the expertise of a high school English teacher to later years when I was a teacher myself but would still run into grammatical questions that I couldn’t answer. If I didn’t call David Davies, also a retired English teacher in addition to his Boys Choir fame and many years in coaching, I would bring the problem to my mom, who always had the answer, even it required consultation with my Aunt Elizabeth.
Mom wrote a note and gave me a thumbs up when she was told about the award and that the Bears had won their first championship.
She knows my wait will finally end around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Rupp Arena. That’s only been 41 years if you go back to that March night of 1976.
Not that I was keeping count.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134