Mar. 15—High school postseason basketball has begun in northeastern Kentucky.
Johnson Central's girls opened tournament time with a 67-24 victory at Magoffin County in the 57th District Tournament semifinals on Sunday afternoon.
Seventeen more area teams are set to play win-or-go-home games tonight at seven sites. If everything stays on schedule, all 38 local programs will have played in the postseason by Wednesday night.
Simultaneously, COVID-19 infection rates are trending downward across Kentucky, with the not-long-ago monochromatically red county incidence map now largely orange and yellow. It isn't green, so there is still work to be done, but it brings to mind a quote often paraphrased in religious circles first attributed to John Newton: "I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am."
Gov. Andy Beshear was openly reluctant to endorse the return of high school sports in late summer. But he did not officially stand in the way once the KHSAA Board of Control decided to move forward and it's believed competition has proceeded largely safely (if not exactly smoothly) as the KHSAA completed a fall sports season and has the finish line in sight for basketball.
Asked about the significance of the KHSAA entering the roundball postseason after the past year, Beshear credited Kentuckians in remarks in Russell on Wednesday afternoon.
"When you look at the perseverance of all of our people, and everyone who has fought so hard to get to this point and to keep people safe, it's incredible," Beshear said. "You know, we talk a lot about leadership at a state or a county level, but this is individual leadership. These are individual Kentuckians deciding to do the right thing each and every time, to forego some things they want to do, to protect people around them. That's why we're here — we're good people and we've been good people."
Last week was filled with reminders that it's been a year since COVID-19 came to our doorstep as a nation. Thursday was the one-year anniversary (if that's the proper term) of Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz testing positive for the coronavirus, viewed as the impetus for the sporting world to go dark, internationally, domestically and locally.
But today, we're talking about basketball. Teams will advance, or they won't, but hopefully all of them will play that out on the floor instead of having it decided for them by a virus.
"We didn't really know if we were even gonna have a season two and a half months ago," West Carter boys coach Jeremy Webb said. "There's been so many variables come into play.
"To be able to allow our guys — if we can get to next week — to get that chance to finish the season, it's gonna be huge for them because you think of so many teams and kids last year that weren't able to finish what they started."
Webb spoke about "next week" last week. That's this week. It's here, and it's worth celebrating.
This was a uniquely difficult season for everyone, but even more so for teams making the jump from mediocre to decent, decent to good, or good to elite. Circumstances made it more difficult than usual just to field a team, much less an improved one.
Hence, we are taking the last Dime of the regular season to recognize the 10 northeastern Kentucky teams (in alphabetical order) who displayed the greatest growth, based primarily on record, from last regular season to this one.
—East Carter boys
2019-20 record: 11-16
2020-21 regular season record: 6-4
The season has provided a small sample size, to be sure, for the Raiders, who didn't play between Jan. 14 and Feb. 9 and got in the fewest games in the 16th Region. But East Carter won its first five outings before a four-game downturn that included a pair of losses to Boyd County and one to Russell, two teams aiming to be in the mix to challenge for a 16th Region Tournament title.
Treven Tussey (14.6 ppg), Connor Goodman (12.1 ppg) and Ethan Miller (10.0 ppg) have led the way offensively for the Raiders.
—Johnson Central boys
2019-20 record: 17-12
2020-21 regular season record: 18-2
After missing the 15th Region Tournament last year for the first time in a decade, the Golden Eagles responded with what was believed to be their best start in school history. They've lost only to 16th Region frontrunners Ashland and Rowan County.
Three Johnson Central players are averaging in double figures: Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches region Player of the Year Isaiah May (16.2 ppg), Cory VanHoose (15.8 ppg) and John King (10.4 ppg).
—Johnson Central girls
2019-20 record: 16-15
2020-21 regular season record: 18-4
The Lady Eagles are off to their best start since the 2002-03 Johnson Central team which didn't suffer its first in-state loss until the 15th Region Tournament final.
Kelci Blair is scoring 15.9 ppg, KABC region Player of the Year runner-up Sammi Sites nets 14.6 ppg and Clara Blair is pitching in 11.0 ppg.
—Lewis County girls
2019-20 record: 17-16
2020-21 regular season record: 13-3
The Lady Lions, who typically dress just nine players, have regardless achieved at a high level, with their only losses to Russell (twice) and similarly highly improved Montgomery County from the 10th Region. Only two of Lewis County's 13 victories have been by single digits.
"This group's mindset has been to appreciate every moment we get this year," Lady Lions coach Jay Fite said. "We have tried to keep things as simple as possible, get better daily at what we do and compete every day with maximum effort."
Lewis County is led by an inside duo both averaging nearly a double-double. Sarah Paige Weddington owns 13.9 ppg and 9.4 rpg, while Cheyenne D'Souza produces 11.8 ppg and 8.9 rpg.
—Menifee County girls
2019-20 record: 12-21
2020-21 regular season record: 10-8
The Ladycats have won seven of their last 10 games since a 3-5 start. Menifee County knows everyone knows about Kelsie Woodard, the KABC 16th Region Girls Player of the Year runner-up who averages 18.0 ppg and 13.7 rpg, but it has worked to foster greater depth and get contributions from other players — and more often than not has succeeded.
Jaycee Gevedon, Morgan Wells, Shalyne Baker and Taylor Parks are all averaging at least 5.9 ppg.
Coach Paul Ricker credited captains Woodard and Parks for keeping the Ladycats focused through a trying season — made less so by more success in the win column.
"Just really proud of our determination throughout this hectic season," Ricker said. "To have a team with one senior and mostly underclassmen competing at a high level with all the distractions says a lot about who we are as a team and as a coaching staff. ... I like where we are and look forward to seeing how we play in the postseason. I love my team."
—Morgan County boys
2019-20 record: 9-18
2020-21 regular season record: 8-4
Matthew Perry, the longest-tenured boys coach in the 16th Region, called his 21st year "the most difficult season in my coaching tenure."
Despite that, the Cougars only missed matching their win total from last season by one game, and with 14 fewer regular-season opportunities to do it.
"The interruptions have had an effect on our continuity and chemistry," Perry said. "Every time we start making progress, we experience a setback. Setbacks, however, are opportunities for comebacks. We continue to remain positive and keep working."
Levi Mayabb is averaging 14.3 ppg and Chandler Lindon pitches in 10.8 ppg for Morgan County.
—Morgan County girls
2019-20 record: 8-18
2020-21 regular season record: 15-9
Last year's Lady Cougars made progress by playing in a lot of close games. This year's team is winning them.
Morgan County is 7-4 in contests decided by two possessions or fewer. That's an exact reversal of the Lady Cougars' record in such games last year.
Morgan County won its most games since 2007-08 and beat every 62nd District opponent for the first time since 2012, and all with a first-year coach in Derrik Young.
"Experiencing the success we've had, all while being a first-year coach and dealing with the uncertainty of COVID, has been special," Young said. "Over this short period of time, our girls have really grown, the whole culture around the program is shifting, and we're excited about not only postseason play but also the years ahead.
"I can't begin to express how much the girls have learned about how to compete. They've started believing in themselves, and that has made it a year to remember for all of us."
Jenna Hampton is averaging 18.0 ppg, Aspen Ferguson delivers 12.4 ppg and Autumn Ross is netting 11.7 ppg.
2019-20 record: 9-20
2020-21 regular season record: 13-9
If the early season looked like more of the same as last year for the Lady Tigers, with a 2-4 start, Paintsville reeled off wins in 10 of its next 12 games. What coach Les Trimble likes best about that is that the Lady Tigers are doing it while starting three freshmen and only have one upperclassman in their regular rotation, junior Ava Hyden.
"The future looks good for us, it really does," Trimble said. "We really want to get in the regional tournament. I think that for us to get in the regional tournament, for my young team, that would be really big."
That would require beating Martin County tonight. The Lady Tigers and Lady Cardinals split their regular-season series, each winning on the other's floor.
A competitive loss to Johnson Central on Wednesday helped show the Lady Tigers "we can play with anybody in the (15th) region," Trimble said.
"We feel like, if you can play with (Johnson Central), you can play with Floyd Central, you can play with Pikeville, you can play with Belfry, and we have," Trimble said. "So if we can get over the hump and get in the regional tournament, I don't think anybody wants to play us."
Emilea Preece averages 14.9 ppg and Chloe Hannah adds 12.8 ppg. Leandra Curnutte, a transfer from Boyd County, is totaling 9.5 ppg.
—Rose Hill Christian girls
2019-20 record: 14-11
2020-21 regular season record: 18-11
The jump in record from last year to this year isn't as eye-catching for the Lady Royals as some other area teams, but Rose Hill makes this list because of a step up in competition.
The Lady Royals own six wins against 16th Region opponents after coming into the year with zero such victories in the previous decade. They have 13 wins over public schools — most significantly larger than Rose Hill in enrollment size — which was the same number of times the Lady Royals so much as played against public schools last season.
This doesn't discount the job former coach Kevin Nibert did building up the Lady Royals. First-year bench boss Nick Karle has worked to continue their progress, touting the team's offseason workouts.
Rose Hill played its 29th regular-season game Saturday, the most in the state. It was the Lady Royals' 18th win, their most since 2005-06.
Karle said three of the seven Lady Royals left had never played basketball before this season and another hadn't played in high school.
"To say we would have gone 18-11 this year with the hardest schedule Rose Hill has seen since 2007-08, with the seven we had left, I would have said no way in the world," Karle said, "but God is good and He always provides at the right time."
Bellamee Sparks averages a double-double with 14.7 ppg and 11.7 rpg, while Baylee Trimble nets 13.5 ppg and Gabby Karle totals 10.4 ppg.
2019-20 record: 12-16
2020-21 regular season record: 12-7
The Red Devils found their stride under then-first-year Russell coach Tom Barrick late last season, winning four of five games in a stretch culminating in a victory in the first round of the 63rd District Tournament. The Red Devils built upon that momentum by winning nine of their first 13 games this season.
"We are extremely proud of our kids and the things they have accomplished this year," Barrick said. "It has been a trying year for every team with all the COVID restrictions, but it has been even more challenging for us with the injuries."
The key injury Barrick references is to Russell's Jach-of-all-trades, senior point guard Charlie Jachimczuk, who runs the offense and typically defends one of the opponent's primary offensive weapons. Jachimczuk hurt his ankle in a district seeding loss to Lewis County on Feb. 27 and didn't play in the Red Devils' last four games of the regular season, but Russell won three of them anyway, including a marquee victory at Boyd County.
"Our response to this type of adversity is a sign that our program is headed in the right direction," Barrick said. "As the head coach at Russell, I couldn't be prouder of the way our kids are maturing as basketball players and as competitors."
Brady Bell averages 18.5 ppg, Jachimczuk is netting 14.4 ppg and Griffin Downs owns 10.2 ppg for the Red Devils.
Comment was sought from the coach of each aforementioned team, either by text message or in person.
Big, Round Numbers
No fewer than nine northeastern Kentucky players cracked scoring career marks of significance last week.
Bath County's Zack Otis, Russell's Shaelyn Steele, Johnson Central's Kelci Blair, Russell's Brady Bell, Elliott County's Maleigh McDaniel and West Carter's Tyson Webb each scored their 1,000th career point.
Paintsville's Colby Fugate hit his 1,500th. And Johnson Central's Isaiah May and Lawrence County's Kensley Feltner cracked the 2,000-point mark.
Johnson Central's Sammi Sites hit the 1,500 mark the week before.
Two games pitting northeastern Kentucky teams produced a pair of 30-point efforts last week.
Rose Hill Christian's Stacey Jackson scored 37 points and Fairview's Jaxon Manning deposited 35 in the Royals' 74-70 overtime victory on Thursday in Westwood.
Morgan County's Jenna Hampton and Lawrence County's Kensley Feltner each produced 31 points in the Lady Bulldogs' 77-71 overtime win Tuesday in West Liberty.
That was only part of a big week for Manning and for Feltner. Manning dropped in 31 points against Teays Valley Christian (West Virginia) on Monday and 33 against Fleming County on Wednesday.
Feltner totaled 34 points against Tug Valley (West Virginia) on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Lewis County's Logan Liles pitched in 30 points in one half against Greenup County on Tuesday. His points-per-half average took a considerable hit in the second half, with "only" nine.
Lawrence County's Cody Maynard tallied 32 points against Belfry on Thursday.
Reach ZACK KLEMME at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.