I watched love in action

The Anderson County starting five gets ready for the start of the state tournament opener against Southwestern. From left are senior Tiffani Riley, juniors Amiya Jenkins and Jacie Chesser, and seniors Sophie Smith and Rachel Satterly.

Anderson County girls lived by, won by the the most basic of all commands

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

As Anderson County High School girls’ basketball coach Clay Birdwhistell made his final substitutions of the 2020-21 season Saturday, I noticed something I don’t remember ever seeing before.

The girls coming in, Peyton Baum and Kinley Lucas, appeared to be wiping away tears. The game clock hanging high above said only 17 seconds remained in the Mingua Beef Jerky/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 semifinal game. The scoreboard also shouted the harsh reality that a dream was dying.

Sacred Heart 63, Anderson County 53. That score remained the same when the final horn sounded a minute or so later. In a nice piece of humanity, the game officials appeared to allow Birdwhistell time to embrace two of his seniors, Tiffani Riley and Sophie Smith, near mid-court before returning to the bench.

Anderson County coach Clay Birdwhistell consoles seniors Tiffani Riley (24) and Sophie Smith as the leave the Rupp Arena floor with 17 seconds to play and Sacred Heart leading 63-53 in the state semifinal game. (All photos by John Herndon.)

Riley and Smith appeared distraught. The other senior, Rachel Satterly, had gone to the bench with five fouls with 24 seconds left on the game clock and stared in shock.

One thing I have learned in working high school basketball games for 36 years is that in Kentucky every team but one will likely be shedding tears when the season ends. The harsh reality and finality of having just one champion, regardless of the size or makeup of a school dictates that everyone else ends the season with a loss.

And tears. 

As a journalist, I had learned to detach myself from the emotions of the game many years ago. I could empathize with the kids but also had a job to do. That was true Saturday as I focused my camera on the events near the Anderson bench.

For seniors, the tears are usually more profuse as they realize their high school careers have ended. And the farther a team goes, the more it hurts. And of more than 250 high schools in Kentucky, only two went farther than Anderson. In a battle of two of the state’s traditional powers, Sacred Heart defeated Marshall County for the Valkyries’ fifth state championship Saturday night. 

Anderson County player Kinley Lucas (34) embraces Rachel Satterly and Amiya Jenkins following the Lady Bearcats’ loss in the state semifinals. Anderson finished the year at 28-3.

In Anderson County’s case, I believe the tears flowed because of love. That’s why it looked like Baum and Lucas, a pair of underclassmen, appeared to wipe away tears as the entered the game. They loved their senior teammates. 

And it’s undoubtedly why the coach embraced his seniors.

Over the years, I have heard coaches talk about teammates loving each other. I have seen some teams representing many different schools that had it and some that seemed like they couldn’t stand each other. And we need to be cautious in assigning more love to teams that advance deep into the post-season than those who go home during district or regional tournament play. 

But over the years I also learned the adage that sports can reflect life is often very true. It was especially so for the Anderson County girls’ basketball team in 2021. Perhaps the most common phrase I heard or read in describing the Lady Bearcats included the words, “fun to watch.” This team could beat you on the fast break or run a patterned offense.. They could beat you with a devastating zone press or a havoc-wreaking half-court defense. Multiple players could burn an opponent and lead the team in scoring.

You saw girls who exhibited selfless agape love as they chased a prize that few dare to even fathom a dream. 

Anderson County coach Clay Birdwhistell embraces seniors Tiffani Riley and Sophie Smith as the leave the game against Sacred Heart.

And when it ended, we saw that agape love in action as they shared tears and held each other up. It didn’t take the hurt away but it was shared.

They were living as Christ commanded his followers, whether they realized it or not.

When I retired from The Anderson News at the end of 2018, I had not planned to be a regular at Anderson County basketball games for several reasons. I knew I would be at some, but not all. However, one of the bright spots of the sports world dealing with the COVID pandemic was that some planned projects for 110forChrist could not be completed. But it meant I was able to stay home and see a great girls’ high school basketball team ascend to the No. 1 spot in the state polls and be ranked in the Top 15 nationally, something no Anderson team had ever done before. I witnessed girls I had first seen as elementary students literally reach for the top. 

And they did so loving each other.

As I said earlier, sports so often reflects life. We talk about teamwork but love takes teamwork to another level. The greatest teams might display it in different ways, but they all have that love that gives up self for the betterment of others.

Even though I have not been around this Anderson team as much as others in the past, I knew I was watching something special when I saw this Lady Bearcat team take the court or simply wave when walking through Walmart. It was simply loving people in all things.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Birdwhistell paid tribute to his seniors. Part of that post said, “However, what they did isn’t as important as how they did it. They are a perfect example of what a student-athlete can be. Their combined GPA is a 4.09. Teachers fight to get to have them in class. They gladly volunteer to perform service to our community that never gets in the paper. They don’t want recognition…they do it because they love Anderson County and it’s the right thing to do. I love them more than they will ever truly understand, and I will be there for them for life.”

Jesus said in John 15:17, “This is my command: Love each other” (NIV).

And like many others who live in Anderson County, I have been blessed to see a group of high school girls do just that.

The Anderson County Lady Bearcats forced some smiles after receiving their semifinalist trophy at the Mingua Beef Jerky/KHSAA Sweet 16 on April 10.

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