PIKEVILLE — Shelby Valley High School has seen some good times since its opening in 1990, but nothing like Sunday afternoon when its basketball team brought home the PNC/ KHSAA Boys' Tournament title.
A cavalcade of cars that some estimated was up to three miles long followed a school bus bringing the team to the small Pike County school. Other motorists stopped along the road to cheer, honk their horns and wave.
Some players perched on top of the bus to wave at the more than 500 cheering fans who were waiting for them at the school, while other team members whooped it up from inside the bus. Some fans waved congratulatory signs, others contributed to the general hullabaloo by beating on pots and pans.
All were savoring a victory that no Pike County school had been able to achieve before.
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The Shelby Valley Wildcats defeated favored Ballard High of Louisville in Rupp Arena on Saturday night to claim the Sweet Sixteen championship.
Shelby Valley, created through the consolidation of the old Virgie and Dorton high schools in Pike County, thus became the first team from mountains of Eastern Kentucky to win the boys' tournament since 1996. And it is the first Pike County team ever to capture the state title.
Also, Shelby Valley became the first school ever to win the Sweet Sixteen and the All "A" tournament for small schools in the same season.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, who is from Pike County and once lived at Virgie, said it was a moment worth remembering. Patton attended Saturday night's championship game.
"It seemed like a lot of people in the crowd were rooting for Virgie," he said Sunday. "It was Kentucky high school basketball at its best."
Jerry Boggs, editor of the Appalachian News-Express, called Shelby Valley's victory "probably the biggest positive news stories in Pike County in years."
"During the tournament run, it felt like the whole county and the whole community had come together," Boggs said. "Eastern Kentucky really does come together to root for their sports teams."
Boggs, a former sports editor at the News-Express, said Shelby Valley's victory might have been unexpected in some parts of Kentucky, but not in Pike County.
"The team and the community really believed that they could win it all," he said.
Patton noted that his own children attended the old Virgie High School and that he watched many games at its tiny "cracker box" gymnasium.
"This was something that a lot of teams from here have aspired to over the past 30 or 40 years and never quite made it," he said. "The Shelby Valley players are the children of the people that played when my children were in school at Virgie.
"I know the parents and the grandparents of several of the players. So, yes, it's really important to the whole community."
Shelby Valley's championship was particularly sweet for Reo Johns, the former longtime Pike County school superintendent who had seen many of the county's basketball teams go to the state tournament and lose.
"I'm sure there weren't any dry eyes in Rupp Arena Saturday among people from up here in the mountains," Johns said Sunday from his home, which is almost across the road from Shelby Valley High School.
"It's the first time a Pike County team has ever won the state tournament, and it means so much to everybody. I think we went down there (to the Sweet Sixteen) in 1932, when there was a dirt court at Virgie High School," he recalled. "We went back in 1962 and several times after that, and had good teams, but we couldn't win it.
"Virgie got to the semifinals in 1982, and that's as far as we ever got until now. I just feel honored to have been a teacher, principal and superintendent in the schools of Pike County. We're so proud of these children."