Thank you Lady Bearcats for an incredible run

Anderson County’s Amiya Jenkins cuts back against the Sacred Heart press in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 on March 10, 2022.

Anderson girls made it easy to rearrange schedules

By John Herndon,

LEXINGTON – Everyone who has ever covered an athletic event – any time, any level, anywhere – knows the one media rule that never changes.

There will be no cheering in the press box. Or the press table. Or in the photography area.

No. Cheering. On. Press. Row.

It’s something I have prided myself for over 35 years. But early in my career, I was fortunate to talk with some of the giants in the business and I learned there was a difference between being a cheerleader and a local writer. And I will admit it felt pretty good when a coach whose teams were always battling the Anderson County Bearcats said one could tell I was telling a local story that I was always fair.

I took it to mean I was doing my job. And I took that job very seriously.

But I will also admit that when the Anderson County girls’ basketball team took a 25-24 lead over Sacred Heart in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 Thursday night, there was a part of me that wanted to cut loose with a “GOOOOOO, Bearcats” from my seat on the press table at Rupp Arena.

The Lady Bearcats were just so much fun to watch and were always so respectful to me even though I had stepped away from being their beat writer when the seniors were freshmen. I’d not written a lot about them and there were a few times when I had to check the roster to make sure I had some names right.

Anderson County’s Jacie Chesser scores against Sacred Heart in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 on March 10, 2022 (All photos by Stephanie Herndon)

But, goodness, this team was easy to pull for.  They had a superstar in Amiya Jenkins, who has signed with Kentucky, and they have some kids who will play college sports and others who will have the opportunity to do so, but could choose to let their games be of the pickup variety once they receive their high school diplomas. 

There’s nothing wrong with any of those scenarios, of course. It just underscored how diverse the Lady Bearcats have been and how special what they have accomplished over the last few years really has been.

Consider that four of this year’s seniors have been around for 116 victories as high school basketball players. The other, Jenkins, transferred in from Henry Clay as a sophomore and has won so many basketball awards I won’t even try to list them all. I will just mention that she’s considered a front-runner for the state’s Miss Basketball award and, despite an off game at the Sweet 16, generally amazes with difficult plays made to look easy.

And as a group, they won three straight Eighth Region championships, something that had not been done since Oldham County did so in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

But even without those titles, it was just so easy to like this bunch.

I admit that when I retired from The Anderson News at the end of 2018, my intention was to travel the state, taking in some high school and small college basketball that I had not been able to do working for a highly local publication. To a small extent, I have been able to do that, but COVID-19 altered my plans for a while.

But in 2021-22, it was the Anderson County Lady Bearcats who drastically altered my plans. While I didn’t attend all of their games, I repeatedly found myself changing plans to head to Anderson County High School just a few miles from my home. The Lady Bearcats were just that much fun to watch.

Thursday night, as I sat at the upper press table, I couldn’t help but remember all of those great times as the Lady Bearcats battled top-ranked Sacred Heart, the eventual tournament champion. Sacred Heart ended Anderson’s dream, 48-38, the Valkyries’ smallest victory margin of the week. 

Anderson County’s Paige Serafini launches a 3-point attempt against Sacred Heart in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena on March 10, 2022.

Coming in, everyone knew the Lady Bearcats had a monumental task, but they battled, overcoming a 12-3 deficit at the end of the first quarter to briefly lead late in the first half. Anderson senior Paige Serafini scored all 16 of Anderson’s points in the second quarter, bombing from downtown and driving into the lane for running flips. She would give Anderson its first lead, 19-18, with a bomb 55 seconds before halftime. 

In the post-game press conference, Serafini, who led Anderson with 18 points, was asked about her third quarter flurry. Her answer underscored why the Lady Bearcats were so much fun.

“They (Sacred Heart) were leaving me open and my teammates did a good job getting me open and they found me,” she said. 

There wasn’t one word of “I was real hot,” or “The goal was as big as the ocean,” or anything else that would lift her accomplishment. Instead it was about “My teammates.”

“That’s the kind of kids they are,” Anderson coach Clay Birdwhistell said when I caught up with him at the tournament Friday. “They are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. If Paige is hitting, her biggest cheerleader is Amiya. If Jacie (Chesser) is having a big night, they get the ball to her. They pull for each other.”

Anderson County’s Amiya Jenkins leaves the floor after the Lady Bearcats were defeated by Sacred Heart, 48-38, in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 on March 10.

Jenkins added, “They are like a group of sisters to me.”

Anderson eased ahead a couple of times early in the third quarter, the last coming when Jenkins sank a pair of free throws to make it 25-24 at the 3:52 mark. Jenkins scored 12 points in the final game of her high school career.

But over the rest of the period, Sacred Heart showed why it would practically breeze to the championship, outpointing the Lady Bearcats 15-2. Anderson battled but could only pare the lead to seven (44-37 at the 1:39 mark) in the final frame. 

“It didn’t go the way we wanted clearly,” Birdwhistell told the statewide media, “but they left their hearts on that floor tonight. I don’t think anyone watched that game and didn’t say they battled their tails off.”

But there was something that set the Lady Bearcats apart, not just at Rupp, but all year long. Their home crowds were much better than most girls’ basketball teams can draw. At the Eighth Region Tournament, red-clad fans descended on Grant County High School and dwarfed the opposition. And at the state, Anderson County had one of the largest fan contingents all week.

Birdwhistell blamed himself for not taking a timeout or doing something to stop Sacred Heart’s third quarter blitz, saying his team was gassed and was trying to “weather the storm,” but he later addressed why so many, like myself, rearranged their wintertime schedules to catch the Lady Bearcats. 

Anderson County coach Clay Birdwhistell embraces seniors Jacie Chesser and Paige Serafini (right) as they leave the court for the final time as Lady Bearcats in the loss to Sacred Heart in the Sweet 16.

“The reason we get the following we do is because of who they are,” he said. “They aren’t the first group of good basketball players in Anderson County history, but our community has connected, the last two years, especially, with these kids.”

While I couldn’t yell, “Goooo, Lady Bearcats” on press row Thursday night, those words were there in my heart. 

And now, I can only say thank you for a year, make that three years, to remember.

Anderson County coach Clay Birdwhistell leaves the court as some Lady Bearcat fans applaud following Anderson’s loss to Sacred Heart in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 on March 10, 2022.

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