Bill Scott admits it doesn’t usually take much to bring back his favorite March Madness memory, that amazing run of 2003 when the Cumberland Redskins shocked the state by rolling to the school’s first and only 13th Region Tournament title.
Those memories were especially sharp last week as Scott watched Harlan County High School, where he works as a teacher, knock off Lynn Camp, South Laurel and Corbin to earn the first 13th Region Tournament title in its nine-year history. It was the first championship for a county team since Scott led the Cumberland Redskins to the 2003 title.
“I’ve relived some of it this week by watching these guys,” Scott said. “I noticed the little white box with tickets and passes that the KHSAA sends to the host school for the winner. It should be gold. I remember them handing that to me and not knowing what to do. It was a tremendous experience.”
“Every year it gets a little bit sweeter,” said Harlan County football coach Eddie Creech, who was a senior guard and the best player on Cumberland’s 2003 team. “You relive it a little bit each year when the state tournament begins.”
Harlan County will take a 31-3 record into its state tournament opener with Scott on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Even though the Bears were ranked below four of the teams in the regional, their run to the title doesn’t compare what Cumberland did 14 years ago as far as catching the region and state by surprise.
Cumberland had a veteran squad that season led by Creech and senior forwards Matt Haynes and Rodney Sturgill, but the Redskins hadn’t won a district championship since 1993 and had struggled through several losing seasons going into the 2002-2003 campaign. There was some hope from local fans who knew that Creech and Haynes had led Cumberland to a 21-0 record and county championship as eighth graders four years earlier and had plenty of success on the football field, where Creech was the star quarterback and Haynes was his top receiver.
“It goes back even farther than the eighth grade,” Scott said. “Frank Vicini, who coached in Cumberland and here at Harlan County, told me when they were in the fourth grade that he had a group coming ‘that could take you to the state tournament.’ You hear that pretty often though, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m glad it did with that group and with this group at Harlan County.”
It was also something of a rebuilding season across the county as Cawood, winners of the past two 52nd District titles, had lost Paul Hearld, Scott Bailey, Jake Turner and Jesse Brock to graduation after back-to-back trips to the final four of the regional.
Scott had worked under coaching legend Ralph Roberts before taking over as head coach before the 1990-1991 season. He led Cumberland to its first All “A” Classic regional title that year and a trip to Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. Cumberland won a 52nd District Tournament title two years later and advanced to the regional final four before falling to Corbin. The Redskins, however, had fallen on hard times by the end of the 1990s.
Cumberland was improved from previous seasons in 2003 but struggled to maintain any consistency with several injuries during the year. The Redskins took an 11-13 record into the postseason and was not considered a serious contender as the postseason opened. Scott knew better, especially with a healthy lineup.
“I knew from Day 1 and all the way through the season that we had the potential to put it together,” he said. “Eddie was hurt and then Matt was hurt for a while, but when we had them together you could tell we could compete with anyone in the region.”
The first break for the Redskins came when Evarts knocked off Cawood in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament. Cawood had defeated the Redskins three times during the season and had a winning streak stretching back over seven years.
“It was a fortunate break for us, but I don’t look at is something that would have derailed us,” Scott said. “Who knows what would have happened. I’d like to think we would have beat Cawood if we played them in the district.”
The Redskins opened the tournament with a 64-25 win over Harlan.
“One of the craziest things about that season was Harlan came up here when we had two or three banged up and they beat us at home,” Creech said. “Less than two weeks later, we beat them by about 40 in the district tournament when we had our full lineup together.”
Cumberland knocked off Evarts 78-62 in the district finals, the first for Cumberland since Scott’s 1993 Redskins knocked off a Harlan team that went on to win the regional title.
“Evarts was a really good team that year,” Scott said. “It was a two- or three-point game until the final couple of minutes. It was a really good game until we pulled away in the last few minutes.
“I think the key cog in the whole run was the defense we were playing,” said Creech said. “We kind of hung our hat on that. If you look at the scores, you could see we took pride in defense. Our shirts when we went to Rupp said ‘Defense makes dreams come true.’”
The Redskins entered the regional with confidence and a winning streak.
We knew we were peaking at the right time, and that’s something every coach wants,” Scott said.
Cumberland edged Barbourville and star guard David Vance 76-69 in double-overtime in the first round of the regional tournament.
“We got to the line a lot in that game. We were real aggressive on offense and by the second overtime they were in serious foul trouble,” Creech said. “I was just thinking at the time that it would great just to win a game in the region. You have to remember that our senior class had never played a game in the regional tournament. I’m not real sure that wasn’t a good thing, because we didn’t know what to expect. It felt awesome to win a game in the regional.”
The Redskins played a Bell County team next that had upset Clay County in the first round. Cumberland knocked off the Bobcats 53-49 in the semifinals.
“Chris Maggard was our seventh or eighth man that year, but he hit two baseline jumpers when we were desperate for a basket,” Scott said.
Cumberland faced its toughest test, by far, in the finals against Rockcastle County and all-state guard Aaron Cash. The Rockets had won the region the year before by edging Knox Central, then knocked off the Panthers again in the semifinals.
“We had heard the whole tournament that it was going to come down to whoever wins the Knox-Rockcastle game would be a shoo-in,” Creech said. “We had a chip on our shoulder going into the game and had nothing to lose. We all were competitors. Six of our first seven guys in basketball were football starters. We went into the game thinking we were bigger and rougher than those guys, and we knew had to beat them on the boards. It got a little rough at times, which was exactly what we wanted. We wanted to get physical with them.”
“We knew had to stop Aaron Cash,” Scott said. “I could tell early in the game our mind was right and our attitude was right and we would be in it until the end.
“Some people couldn’t believe we won and they want to attribute it to something else and say it was a down year, but I don’t think it was a down year. Rockcastle County went the year before and they went the year after.”
Cumberland built an early lead and stayed ahead until the fourth quarter when Rockcastle rallied and appeared to have the momentum after going ahead.
“Rodney Sturgill told me when Rockcastle took the lead their fans stood up and screamed and he could feel the heat on the back of his neck,” Scott said. “As soon as they took the lead, we threw it in to Eddie and he goes straight down the floor and waves out our 6-5 post player (Kevin McIlquham). There could have been three people open and he wouldn’t have passed it, and he was so wise not to. He took it straight to the goal and dropped it in. I really believe if we don’t make that shot, they go into the four corners, make free throws and we lose. That one possession decided the game, and I think he knew in his heart that he had to score.”
Cumberland went on to win 57-54, earning the school’s first trip to the Sweet Sixteen after coming close in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
“For an entire week, I can’t really remember a lot that went on. I was kind of in a fog, and I talked to (Harlan County stars) Cameron (Carmical) and Treyce (Spurlock) and coach (Michael) Jones and asked if they felt the same way,” Creech said. “I remember a lot of hugging and crying after the game, then the parade they had for us. You hold on to those memories, but I really didn’t know what to think after it happened.”
“We felt we were winning it for all those teams that got so close,” Scott said. “That was part of the enjoyment. Ralph Roberts and all those guys who got so close won it also. It wasn’t just the 2003 team.”
Cumberland’s stay in the Sweet Sixteen didn’t last long as the Redskins fell to 3rd Region champ Daviess County 68-35.
“They were a really, really good team and had a bad call go against them against Hopkinsville in the quarterfinals or they could have been state champs,” Scott said. “We were down by 20 and ended up losing by 30-something, but that’s because I decided to put everybody in the game. We probably had the five most inexperienced, smallest players in the history of Rupp out there. The score didn’t turn out the way I hoped, but only one team goes home happy.”
Memories of the state tournament experience are still sharp for both Scott and Creech, who say the current group of Bears will remember the next few days for the rest of their lives.
“So many people from Cumberland and Harlan County who had moved away were at the game. I think we will see that Wednesday when the Bears play,” Scott said. “I think that’s the kind of support we’ll have there.”
“I hope they can realize how special what they are doing is,” said Creech. “These kids, if the Lord blesses them long enough, will be able to share these memories with their kids and grandkids. It feels good to them now, but they don’t know yet how special this is.”
A video of the interview with Scott and Creech, as part of the Harlan County Sports Legends series, is available at Harlan County High School. For more information, contact John Henson at [email protected]
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134