Thankful for the crazy normal of March

Shelby County’s Brooklyn Patton goes flying over Spencer County’s Mikayla Ennis in a scramble for a loose ball in Wednesday’s 30th District semifinal game. Spencer prevailed, 47-38, in a hard-fought game.

A year after our world was turned upside down, be grateful that March Madness has returned, even when it’s different

By John Herndon,

Thanks basketball. We needed that!

We needed something to get excited about. We needed something to give us a sense of anticipation. We needed the exhilaration. We needed the passion.

We have needed March Madness.

At least I have. This week, I have been  fortunate to be in attendance at Martha Layne Collins High School for the 30th District Tournament. I’d been to at least some of that district tournament every year since 1984 and can tell you almost every district champion and runner-up since then.

(Really, it’s not that hard. On the boys’ side, it was always Shelby County or Anderson County from 1984 until 2010 when Shelby split to form Collins. And on the girls’ side, Shelby dominated, winning all but a couple of years until 2009 when Anderson started dominating.)

Back to the point at hand. I have needed March Madness. 

And I can’t wait to keep experiencing the Madness this year into early April. 

Collins’ Aaron Thompson comes down with a rebound in the Titans’ 51-42 win over Spencer County in the 30th District semifinal Wednesday night.

Undoubtedly you know the story. If you are reading this, it’s likely you’ve lived it. A year ago, I was working the Kentucky girls’ state tournament. While I had retired from the newspaper business, I had planned to make connections at Rupp Arena for stories to run at that week and the near future. It was gravy that the school I had covered, Anderson County, had been a buzzsaw in district and regional play to make its first trip back to Rupp in six years. After the Lady Bearcats defeated Franklin County in the first round, I knew there was a chance that kids I had watched play in youth leagues had a chance to be playing for a state championship a few days later.

But on March 12, 2020, everything changed. The Girls’ Sweet 16 was halted before the first round ended. The boys’ state tournament never got started, suffering the same fate as the NCAA Tournament. It left a gaping hole in our minds and our way of life.

I won’t get into whether or not that should have happened. I firmly believe that those in charge of the tournaments did the best they could to keep people safe with the information they had about a novel coronavirus. Over the course of a year, many strides have been made in treating this virus and, at this writing, I have received the first dose of the vaccination — no issues at all — and many have had their arms stuck twice.

The important thing about this year is that I am just glad the Kentucky High School Athletic Association and the schools have found a way to play, even if it’s different than in the past.

There’s no jump ball in Kentucky. The first possession is determined by a coin flip, then the possession arrow takes over just like a normal game. It still seems kind of strange — I can’t tell you how many times this year I have been ready to shoot a photo of the opening tip only to remember the COVID-induced change. It’s different, but my guess would be that it has had zero impact on the outcome of games.

Collins’ Lizzie Hammond (5) inbounds the ball to Makyra Beach to get the 30th District Tournament underway Monday night. The Titans defeated Woodford County, 70-64, to advance to the semifinal round where they lost to Anderson County. (Photos by John Herndon.)

And this year, it just seems odd when multiple games are played that the gym clears between games before fans are allowed back in. At tournament time, I am so used to the chaos of teams playing the second game trying to navigate the court as teams from the first game are leaving. In all my years as a writer, these were probably the most rushed moments of the season. 

It was just one of those crazy moments you learned to master over time. But anyone complaining about the practice of limiting attendance and clearing gymnasiums is simply not dealing with reality. 

At most, it’s a minor inconvenience. I am just thrilled the kids are getting to play the games.

But this week, I realized that March Madness really hasn’t changed. The emotions are as high in 2021 as they have ever been.

Monday night, I watched the Collins and Woodford County girls teams battle for a chance to play Anderson County in the district semifinals. To many, that game might not have mattered. Collins ultimately won, 70-64, but then absorbed a 51-point loss the following night. It would have been easy to say that Collins-Woodford game meant little since either would have been expected to be hammered by the Anderson powerhouse that was ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the season.

Someone forgot to tell those girls. They gave every ounce of effort possible and when the final buzzer sounded, the Collins girls wore big smiles but the Woodford girls displayed the stunning reality that their season and, for the three seniors, their high school careers had ended. 

Later that night I watched the Anderson boys, who had struggled with inconsistency all season, put together three flawless quarters of basketball against a red-hot Shelby County team that had won five of its last six games and was turning heads in the Eighth Region. Anderson built a 16-point lead and still had a 10-point cushion entering the final eight minutes. But Shelby rallied to tie things with four seconds to play.

But in the overtime, Anderson found life again to avenge a regular season loss. The next night, the Bearcats pulled out another squeaker, beating top-seeded Woodford County 41-39. Anderson’s Tristan Staley scored what appeared to be a game-winning basket, but the officials ruled Woodford County had called time at 2.3 seconds to play. The Yellow Jackets sank a half-court shot as time ran out but the officials ruled that the Woodford bench had called timeout with 1.1 seconds to play, before the shot was released.

Anderson picked off the ensuing lob pass and a wild celebration broke out as the Bearcats advanced to the Eighth Region Tournament for the first time since 2018.

And at the other end of the court, the Woodford players walked off, stunned beyond belief.

(After watching the replay on, I am convinced the officials made the right call.)

Anderson County players Jackson Snodgrass (11) and Carson Wooldridge celebrate the Bearcats’ upset of Woodford County in the 30th District semifinals. Anderson advanced to the regional tournament for the fist time in three years.

Those emotions will continue at the regional and state tournaments. It’s part of the atmosphere that makes March Madness at the high school level an experience like none other.

But it’s also a time in which our Christian witness can be tested. See a call you believe an official misses? 

Usually it’s a judgment call made by a human being. That’s not saying every call is always right. But they are human beings with many of the same realities of life that each of us experience every day. In 36 years behind the keyboard, I can say that I have seen some poor officials, but most are men and women just trying to do their best for kids playing the game they love.

And think about it: When is the last time an official missed a free throw or threw a ball out of bounds.

Or what about those opposing coaches or players that seem to be less than desirable?  Admittedly, I have met my share of jerks over 36 years, but that number pales in comparison to the genuinely good people I have encountered.

I learned that lesson early in my journalism career when I usually sought out the coach of the team playing Anderson County or Western Anderson. I just wanted to get the full story and set a standard of excellence in my work. Eventually, I realized that most of those people were just trying to help kids through a game they love.

Woodford County’s Jasper Johnson sinks a three-pointer against Anderson County.

In that respect, they were just like the people I worked with on a regular basis. And some of them became friends away from the court. And, I often made connections in other communities that have grown to make endeavors like possible. 

It’s just an unexpected blessing of working in the sports world.

Yes, I have had my highs and lows in sports. As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to get attached to the team you are covering. I have experienced euphoria such as the night C.J. Penny hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to send Anderson County to the 2009 Sweet 16. I have been there for someone to cry, like the night Scott County overtook Anderson in the last 30 seconds to go to the Sweet 16 in 1995. 

And I have seen every emotion in between.

It’s March Madness. I’m thankful for the crazy normal of this time of year.

And I am thankful it is a time our light can shine regardless of the score. 

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