The best sports time of the year

Tournament time is special; May God be glorified

By John Herndon,

There’s no other time in the sports year that I enjoy more than March Madness, the high school variety.

In Kentucky, it all gets underway next week with the district tournaments tipping off Monday night. One day short of four weeks later, the season will end with the girls’ state championship game at Lexington’s Rupp Arena.

(OK, we realize that the calendar says February and most teams will have been eliminated before March gets here, so March Madness might not be technically correct, but you know what we mean. Regardless of when they are played, they really are Madness and nothing ever goes according to the script.)

I was smitten with the Madness bug long before I knew how special the Kentucky high school tournament really is. That single-elimination free-for-all with only one state champion — no enrollment classifications makes it truly unique among high school basketball tournaments.

In fact, several years ago, I was blessed to meet and interview Bobby Plump, the star of Milan, Indiana’s 1954 state championship team. It was the team that inspired the movie “Hoosiers,” which will undoubtedly be shown countless times over the next few weeks. As I sat in his restaurant in Indianapolis, Plump was lamenting the fact that Indiana had gone to multiclass basketball in the late 1990s. He said that Indiana had taken “the best high school basketball tournament in the world and handed it to Kentucky.”

I won’t complain. I love it. I love the emotion. I love the upsets. I love the unpredictably. I’d attended tournament games as a kid and in 1968, my parents got tickets to see the Sweet 16 in Louisville’s Freedom Hall. I don’t remember a lot about that tournament other than Glasgow defeated Louisville Seneca in the final.

Two years later, I cried when my beloved Anderson County Bearcats lost in double overtime to Richmond Madison in the 11th Region semifinal. I was sure Anderson was going to the state tournament, but it was Madison that advanced to the state championship game. (As a side note, the coach of that Richmond Madison team, Ray Vencil, was very close to my wife’s family and I have gotten to know him as one of those truly nice people I have met.)

I was in the stands at Henry County High School a year later when Anderson, which had been realigned to the Eighth Region, rallied from a halftime deficit to defeat Carroll County to win the school’s first regional championship. And I was in Freedom Hall the following week as the Bearcats made it all the way to the state championship game before losing to Louisville Male. To a 13-year-old, it was the most exciting time I had ever experienced.

Three years later, I was manager for an Anderson County team that no one expected to contend for the regional championship. It was the first time any of us could remember not being among the pre-season regional favorites. Yet, our coach, Wayne King, told us he believed we had what it took to get to the Sweet 16. After shaking off a mid-season slump, we got hot at the right time.

We rolled to the regional championship game where Scott County was waiting. The Cardinals had beaten us during the season and were up five at halftime. I can still see my Sunday School teacher standing, exhorting the Bearcats as we rallied.

We took the lead, 55-54, but Scott had the ball for one final shot. When it fell off the rim and we knew we were going to the Sweet 16, bedlam broke loose.

It mattered little that we were going to have to play top-ranked Louisville Central, the eventual state champ and one of the all-time great teams in Kentucky, in the opener and they beat us by 29 points.

The following year, we were supposed to go back. Only one starter and one reserve graduated. We won 24 games and took the district again, but in the regional semifinals, Shelbyville used a late push to defeat us. I cried in the locker room.

This trip down memory lane is there to remind everyone how much fun this time of year can be. It’s also the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something. Every game could be the last, not just for the season but forever. You see, no two teams are exactly the same. Even when everyone is expected to return, it rarely happens. Sometimes people decide to pursue other opportunities. People move away. Sometimes, injuries end careers.

It’s the nature of high school basketball.

It’s also an opportunity for a Christian to let his light shine bright on the biggest stage. It’s being the great teammate. It’s giving one’s best every second. It’s being gracious in victory or defeat, whether you are a player, coach or fan.

Actually, we should be all those things all the time, not just during Madness. But the lights are brighter and more people are watching now than any other time of the year.

May God be glorified in all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s