Monticello's heartbreak: Tiny school mourning apparent end to a century of tradition

mfields@herald-leader.comFebruary 16, 2013 

  • Kentucky high school boys' basketball's winningest programs

     1. Ashland Blazer 1,893

     2. Paducah Tilghman 1,838

     3. Central City-x 1,578

     4. Paintsville 1,357

     5. Newport Catholic 1,311

     6. Wayne County 1,294

     7. Lafayette 1,290

     8. Monticello 1,276

     9. Paris 1,242

    10. Mason County 1,169

    x-Central City closed in 1990.

MONTICELLO — The scoreboard in Monticello High School's bandbox gym indicates this is not going to be a good night for the Trojans.

Southwestern, the defending 12th Region champion, leads Monticello 17-0 midway through the first quarter. The few dozen fans who have come out on this early February evening don't make much noise as the gap grows to 52-15 by halftime.

Officially, the game's not over, but competitively it's over long before the final horn and final score (83-33).

It appears the same can be said about Monticello basketball. Officially, the season's not over for the Trojans — they will host the 48th District Tournament this week — but their future has been doomed for months.

In mid-December, the Monticello Independent Board of Education voted to formally request that the state take over the financially strapped district, and preliminary discussion began about merging Monticello with Wayne County.

That would mean the end of a school that has been in existence for more than 100 years, and the end to one of the most storied basketball programs in Kentucky.

John Hurt, superintendent of Monticello Independent Schools, said the board voted last Wednesday to accept state management.

This Wednesday, the state board is expected to approve taking Monticello under its control, but Hurt said that would not necessarily mean the end of the school.

"There's no correlation between state management and merger," Hurt said. "A lot of people assume they're the same thing, but they're not."

Hurt said Monticello will make a presentation at Wednesday's meeting that will show "how we hope to be able to keep Monticello Independent a viable and sustainable school district," and how it could eventually come out from under state management."

Money troubles got Monticello in this situation.

"It's a very complex financial problem," Hurt said. "It's not any one single thing. It's an accumulation of various financial problems."

Is Hurt optimistic Monticello can be rescued?

"I certainly wouldn't say it can't be done," he said. "But it will be a difficult path."

Monticello Coach Stewart Gregory said he is "99.9 percent sure" this is the Trojans' swan song season, and he can't shake "a feeling of sadness" about another small school being shuttered.

Cuba, Carr Creek, Central City, Hazel Green, Hindman, Inez, Madison, Maysville, Midway, Sharpe, Wayland and dozens of other small schools that made headlines in hoops have gone the way of the set shot.

Monticello's tradition ranks up there with any of them.

The Trojans are the eighth-winningest program in state history with 1,276 victories.

They have 16 boys' regional championships, all of them documented by blue banners hanging on the gym wall. (Monticello's girls own three region titles).

The Trojans' greatest run of glory was four region titles in five years starting in 1956, culminating with a state runner-up finish to Flaget in 1960. Monticello also made it to the state tournament in 1967, '69, '74 and '87, proving a little school could still compete with the big boys.

That has not been the case with the Trojans for a while, though. They haven't had a winning season since the early 1990s, and they've suffered at least 20 losses in 11 of the last 12 seasons, including a 2-25 mark (going into Saturday's game against Berea) this season.

Gregory, who played for Monticello in the early 1980s, took over as coach last fall with hopes of getting the program back to respectability. He said his "realistic goal was maybe finishing over .500 every few years."

That rebuilding project doesn't look like it will get off the ground.

Gregory gets emotional when he remembers first hearing the bad news:

"It was December 17th. We're at Caverna for a game. We get beat, and before we get to the locker room a parent meets me. I could tell something was wrong. They tell me the (school board) voted that night to merge with Wayne County. I was stunned. Nobody had an inkling this was coming."

Gregory went into the locker room to face his players. After briefly touching on that night's game, he told them about the merger.

"We talked about it and cried about it," he said. "It wasn't just about basketball. It was about life. I've got nine kids on the team who are directly affected because their parents work at the school. They're smart enough to realize mom or dad may not have a job anymore."

The players took the news hard. "I hated it, and everybody else did, too," said junior forward Travis Edwards. "It was pretty emotional when Coach told us.

"I'd like to stay here and graduate from Monticello next year, but I can't do anything about that now."

Wade Upchurch, who played for the Trojans in the late 1960s and coached them from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, was also shocked by Monticello's sudden demise.

"It was almost like Grandpa died of malpractice. He went to the hospital and died, when he should've had a few more days. It was so sudden.

"The news should've come in a closed session in the gym here at school, with all the teachers and students. Everybody could've shared it and cried about it together.

"These things happen, but you should have time to review and celebrate your history."

Monticello's hoops' history includes a mythical state title in 1915, and an 80-year-old gym that has seen the likes of Wes Unseld, Jim McDaniels and Jimmy Dan Conner running up and down its court.

There was the successful 22-year coaching career of the late Joe Harper, who guided the Trojans to six region titles, highlighted by a run to the Sweet Sixteen finals in 1960.

Gene Pendleton and Don Frye were the stars of that state runner-up team.

Frye, who lives in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., was unaware that Monticello might close at the end of this school year until a reporter asked him about it last week.

"There's a good bit of pride there," he said. "I'd hate to see it come to an end."

Pendleton lives in Webster County, but he's kept up with the unfolding story through the Wayne County Outlook newspaper.

"It bothers me quite a bit," he said. "What's going to happen to all the trophies and banners accumulated over the years? More important, what about the kids who get to play basketball at a small school but may not have the opportunity to play at a big school? That's what really hurts when these small schools go by the wayside."

Gregory said Monticello has 27 students (from seventh grade up) in his program, "and maybe four of them could play (at Wayne County) if we merged. That means 23 kids running around without something to do in their spare time. Will they get in trouble? You hope not. But some of them probably will."

Monticello's girls are in the same situation, as Gregory knows all too well. His daughter Gabriele is an eighth-grader who plays varsity. But would she get a chance to play at Wayne County?

"There are so many more kids to choose from in a big school," Gregory said.

Douglas Perkins and his wife, Jackie, are among the spectators at this Monday night game. They're here for their daughter Abigail, a junior cheerleader.

Perkins has strong ties to Monticello basketball. He played for the Trojans, as did his brothers John, Kermit and David, all three of whom are in the school's Hall of Fame.

"It breaks my heart that a school that's been in existence for over 100 years is on the brink of closing," he said as the pep band plays the Trojans' fight song.

"I don't think it's good at all. At least now in the county there's a choice. Kids who can succeed in a small school may not be able to succeed in a big school.

"And what happens to the basketball tradition here? It's a sadness for me."

It's a sadness for Monticello assistant coach Leon Allen, too. He played for the Trojans, as did his brother Lonnie and sister Nancy. (Nancy was on Monticello's Sweet Sixteen teams in 1975 and '76.)

Leon moved back to Monticello from Scott County 10 years ago to start his own business and to give his children, Briana and Andre, a chance to play sports at a small school.

"When you get a chance to be part of a team, it's something you carry with you the rest of your life. At a bigger school you might not get that opportunity," Allen said. "I played on this ball court, and my brother and sister and son and daughter played on this ball court.

"A lot has gone into Trojan pride and Trojan tradition, but this could be the end of it all, and that really hurts."

Hurt agreed.

"Monticello is a big piece of history and everybody recognizes that," he said. "We hope it's not the end of the road."


Kentucky high school boys' basketball's winningest programs

 1. Ashland Blazer 1,893

 2. Paducah Tilghman 1,838

 3. Central City-x 1,578

 4. Paintsville 1,357

 5. Newport Catholic 1,311

 6. Wayne County 1,294

 7. Lafayette 1,290

 8. Monticello 1,276

 9. Paris 1,242

10. Mason County 1,169

x-Central City closed in 1990.

Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337 Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes Blog: fieldsnotes.bloginky.com

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