GOOD TO BE BACK IN THE GYM

Former Walton-Verona coach Mark Clinkenbeard glad to be watching the game he loves

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

DRY RIDGE, Ky. – Mark Clinkenbeard couldn’t stay away. He’d stepped down as the girls’ basketball coach at Walton-Verona High School during the 2021-22 season, but when the calendar said it was tournament time, he knew he was going to be in a gym somewhere.

Mark Clinkenbeard, right, talks with 110forChrist’s John Herndon at the girls’ Eighth Region Tournament, March 4, 2022.
(Photo by Stephanie Herndon)

And Friday night, he was seated at mid-court, a couple of rows behind the scorer’s table for the girls’ Eighth Region Tournament semifinals at Grant County High School. “It’s good to be back in the gym,” he said. “It’s always good to be back in the gym.”

Clinkenbeard had missed the first round games. He’d planned to be in attendance earlier in the week but a medical issue arose, forcing him to miss the Walton-Verona girls’ final game of the season, a loss to Spencer County. But Friday night, he was there watching Anderson County and Owen County advance to the regional final the following night. Anderson eventually prevailed for the Lady Bearcats’ third consecutive regional title.

Clinkenbeard has been fortunate to know the joy of cutting down those nets. He ascended to the top of the Walton-Verona program before the 2011-12 season. Clinkenbeard inherited the defending regional champions and didn’t miss a beat. After going 9-4 against a rugged December schedule, Walton-Verona caught fire in January, winning 10 straight, including the championship of the All-A Classic. They stayed hot through the Eighth Region Tournament, defeating a very good South Oldham team in the championship game of what some call “The Tornado Tournament.”

A tornado outbreak in the area prompted postponement of Friday’s semifinal games. “That was at Anderson County,” Clinkenbeard recalled. “The finals were on Sunday afternoon. What was unique about that team, I had actually coached that team first when they were in the fist, second and third grads. My daughter (Molly) was on that team. That was my first year, but I had coached those kids 100-150 games.”

Mark Clinkenbeard questions a call during the 2021 Girls’ Eighth Region Tournament at North Oldham High School.
(File photo by John Herndon)

That Walton-Verona team threw a scare into Marion County, the eventual state runner-up, before falling in the first round of the Sweet 16. The Bearcats were never fortunate enough to navigate the Madness of March again to the state tournament, but in his 10 full seasons, Clinkenbeard guided Walton-Verona to four 32nd District titles, including his final three years. (The Bearcats continued that string this year, giving new coach Rianna Gayheart a district title in her first season at the helm.)

According to KHSAA records, Clinkenbeard compiled a 220-109 record at Walton-Verona. Five times, his team was eliminated in the Eighth Region Tournament by the eventual champion.

Even with that record of success, he felt the need to step down just before Christmas. At the time, Walton-Verona stood at 7-4, but Clinkenbeard had not been in the best of health. He’d undergone cancer surgery in February 2021 and then battled COVID in December.

“I had a CT scan right before Christmas and I am cancer-free right now,” Clinkenbeard says, “but COVID hit me pretty good. It was right before Christmas and it was one of the reasons I stepped down. I knew I would be out for three or four weeks and I felt the kids needed stability.

“The last game was in Gatlinburg (a 51-33 win over White House-Heritage, Tenn.), I was there but I did not feel well and Rianna coached it.”

When the Bearcats returned home, Clinkenbeard stepped away from the game he loves. “At the time, I was sick, so it wasn’t real hard,” he says with a chuckle. “But it was hard. You put in all that work in the off season and I had three seniors.”

For the most part, Clinkenbeard stayed away from Walton-Verona games. He says he attended a handful of the boys’ games but didn’t make it back to a girls’ game except for Senior Night. Gayheart had planned a night to honor the 2012 regional champs as a surprise for their head coach on Feb. 4, but a snow and ice storm canceled the festivities.

One of the most successful Eighth Region coaches during his tenure, Clinkenbeard says the wins and the championships are fun, but influencing lives is what has driven the way he handled the Walton-Verona program.

“We build relationships with the kids,” he says. “We are with them a lot. You are with them all summer and all fall. Then it’s a long season. I still have kids that graduated I don’t know how many years ago who still call and text me, so yes, you do make an impact. It’s not about the wins and losses. It’s about preparing them for the things they are going to meet in life.”

Clinkenbeard says he feels better. His wife, Missy, and he celebrated the one year anniversary of his cancer surgery with a trip to Florida in February and he’s thankful that he’s cancer free. 

“Florida was good,” he says with a smile. “The weather was good. It was kind of surreal to come back here to 30-degree weather. It was 80 degrees there, so I can see why people go there in the winter.”

Mark Clinkenbeard watches during Walton-Verona’s loss to Anderson County in the 2021 Girls’ Eighth Region Tournament semifinals. Behind him is assistant coach Rianna Gayheart, who took over as head coach when Clinkenbeard stepped down from the head coaching position just before Christmas, 2021. (File photo by John Herndon.)

However, Clinkenbeard developed an atrial fibrillation that kept him from the first round of the regional tournament. “We aren’t sure what caused it but the doctors are working to get that under control,” he says. 

When one of the truly good ones steps down, the ripple effect reaches widely. “A lot of coaches and a lot of my former players called or texted,” he says. “My wife is on Facebook and she got a lot of stuff there too. It was nice that a lot of people reached out.”

For now, Clinkenbeard is enjoying the games. He hopes to make some of this week’s Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena and will be following the college tournaments.

Clinkenbeard says he’s semi-retired and works about 30 hours a week for a plumbing company in northern Kentucky. 

Could he return to the sideline? “It’s too early to tell,” he says with a smile. “I have to watch what I say, My wife, if I mention that I’d want to, she probably would not like that.”

But for now, just being back in the gym is good for Mark Clinkenbeard.

Mark Clinkenbeard’s record (according to the KHSAA)

2011-12 29-7 Kentucky All-A Classic Champs, 32nd District Champs, Eighth Region Champs.

2012-13 18-10

2013-14 17-14

2014-15 16-14

2015-16 24-9

2016-17 18-13

2017-18 24-10

2018-19 25-9 32nd District Champs

2019-20 24-10 Kentucky All-A Classic Runnerup, 32nd District Champs

2020-21 18-9 Kentucky All-A Classic Runnerup, 32nd District Champs

2021-22 7-4 Stepped down from head coaching in December

Totals 220-109 1 Kentucky All-A championship, 2 All-A Runnerup finishes, 4 32nd District Champions, 1 8th Region champion, 

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