Deep in Eastern Kentucky, in “A City Built on Coal,” a diamond glimmers amid the remains of an economic boom long since past. Her name is Whitney Creech.
Creech’s name appeared 29 times in the KHSAA basketball record books entering her senior season at Jenkins High School, where she has logged varsity minutes since she was a fifth-grader and started since she was in seventh grade.
Her 1,050 points as a junior last season were seventh-most all-time. Her 42 points per game led the nation. On Dec. 9 she became just the fourth Kentucky high school player, boy or girl, to score 4,000 career points.
She’s nowhere near finished. Through 10 games this season Creech is averaging 50.9 points, putting her on pace to become the first 5,000-point scorer in the history of Kentucky high school basketball. Boys’ leader “King” Kelly Coleman, a mythological figure in the mountains whom she’s already passed for third in all-time scoring, put up 4,337 in his career; if she continues at her current rate, Creech would finish with about 1,000 more.
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It’s no surprise to see this small community embrace its 5-foot-9 phenom, who has signed with Western Kentucky University. In addition to the school marquee, signs from local businesses congratulate her as scoring milestones are passed. Folks with little interest in basketball hover over newspapers eager to see how she performed the night before. Her name lights up social-media platforms as much as her game lights up opponents.
What does she think of it all?
“I was always told from middle school that I was a good player and all this,” Creech said. “I never thought it’d be to this magnitude.”
12 The number of times Whitney Creech has scored 50 or more points in a game over her career, including four times this season. It’s six more than the previous record-holder, Glenna VanHoose (Paintsville).
‘Pretty good high school player’
Creech began playing in a basketball peewee league at Burdine Elementary. Her mom, Janice, asked Whitney if she wanted to join and she’s kept with it ever since. So has mom.
“I could probably count on both hands the games I’ve missed,” said Janice Creech, a lifelong University of Kentucky basketball fan. “I tell people all the time, ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I was never athletic but ever since I can remember I’ve loved basketball. People used to say if you didn’t know UK you couldn’t talk to me. So then God gave me a kid that plays and loves it.”
Dwight Creech, the principal at Carr Creek Elementary in Knott County, figured his daughter would be a “pretty good high school player” after watching the way she dribbled around defenders and got to the basket with ease as a sixth-grader. As defenses began to see her more and focus their efforts on containing her, he assumed she’d start scoring less or shooting a worse percentage; each average has gone up year-to-year since she was in eighth grade.
“She doesn’t take a lot of what I’d call bad shots,” Dwight said. “She has to shoot a lot and be the primary scorer, but she plays under control all things considered.”
“Aggressive” was the first word that came to mind when Whitney was asked to describe her game. Her first instinct is to drive toward the rim. If she can’t spot or create an opening in the lane, she’s happy to pull up from 15 feet out. Most of her points are created off defensive rebounds — she’s averaging 17.7 total boards a game this season — as she drives downhill before the defense has time to tighten.
Her tenaciousness on the glass developed from a seed planted by her father before she reached high school.
“In middle school they would put two people on me or box and chase me,” Whitney said. “My dad said, ‘Whitney, you just get the rebound and you get down the court as fast as you can.’ ... I get that rebound and I’m trying to get there before the defense sets up.”
Whitney became Jenkins’ primary ball handler as a junior after the team graduated its point guard and assists leader. This year in the half court, she says she’s doing a better job of collapsing defenses and finding wide-open shooters. She thinks facilitating for others will become an even bigger part of her game when she starts playing for WKU.
“The more versatile you can be, the more use they’ll have for you and the more reason they’ll have to put you out there and put you in the game,” she said. “Because if they shut down your scoring you need to be able to affect the game in more than one way.”
Three-pointers aren’t a significant part of her production but an area in which she’s improving. A career 20.7 percent shooter since her eighth-grade season, she’s shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc as a senior..
“The way they guard me I don’t really have a great look at it,” Creech said, “but when we shoot at practice I’m decently consistent from the three.”
Since her eighth-grade season began, Creech has been held under 20 points only five times — none since scoring 19 in a loss to Pike County Central as a freshman on Valentine’s Day in 2013. She’s aware of the eye-popping numbers but says she doesn’t keep tabs on where she ranks.
She could’ve went a lot of different directions to have gotten a lot more glory and exposure. She stayed right here where she grew up. That tells me all I need to know about that kid.
Randy Napier, Perry County Central girls’ basketball coach
Courtney Mullins, a substitute teacher at Jenkins and Whitney’s cousin, asked Whitney how close she was to reaching 4,000 points as the Cavaliers’ season got underway. Mullins said Whitney didn’t have any idea.
“She said, ‘If it gets there it gets there, if it don’t, it don’t,’” Mullins said. “She’s not worried about how many points she’s got, how far up in the state she is. All she wants to do is do what she loves. And she loves to play basketball.”
Pride of the town
It’s not uncommon for a team’s best player to be its hardest working. Whitney Creech is no different from the likes of LeBron James and Michael Jordan in that respect. Chances are, though, neither of those guys ever rode down a snow-packed hill on a four-wheeler with their grandfather so they could get in the weight room at 5 a.m. Creech has.
Her coach, Ashley Addington, recounted that nugget with a laugh. She remembered it well, because she was the person Creech woke up to unlock the school’s facilities that morning. There have been many mornings like that. And evenings, when after Creech finishes softball practice — she’s also a standout second baseman — she heads back over to the school to lift weights or put up shots.
“When you’re in the gym or weight room you’re getting better,” Whitney said. “You’re bettering yourself, you’re bettering your team.”
Having a player like her around “makes my job a lot easier probably than normal coaches,” Addington said. “There’s nothing I really have to tell her to do that she doesn’t already do.” Teammates Alexis Stambaugh and McKenzie Gibson, both seniors, said being around Whitney motivates them to work harder.
“She’s the first person in and the last person out,” Gibson said.
That work ethic is part of what impressed Michelle Clark-Heard, the women’s basketball coach at WKU who starred at Atherton in the 1980s.
“She gets up in the morning and goes to the gym before school starts,” Clark-Heard said. “ ... It shows you her level of dedication and how much she loves the game.”
Like Creech, Addington played basketball and softball for Jenkins. That was at the turn of the century, when the girls’ basketball team saw its last taste of success. It won district titles in 1997, 1999 and 2001, adding to its three straight from 1975 to 1977. The program has been to two Sweet Sixteens (1975 and 1976) and was the 14th Region runner-up in 1997.
Girls’ basketball inspired quite a following in Jenkins in the ’90s, Addington said, and Creech has helped rekindle that passion in the community; one that over the past couple of decades has witnessed its coal backbone get exhumed from existence. Said Addington:
“We haven’t had a lot of celebration, so to have somebody like her that actually has our name out there nationwide, our community’s rallied around her to show that good things still can happen in a small town.”
She’s the pride of the town, but Creech prefers to stay under the radar. “She just likes to be somebody that hides in the back and does what she’s ’sposed to,” Mullins said.
Off the court and out of the spotlight, Creech likes watching One Tree Hill and Scandal — the former a teenage drama that ran for eight seasons, the latter an ongoing political thriller which airs on ABC. She also enjoys babysitting and helping kids during Sunday school at church. Those experiences have inspired her to most likely become an education major at WKU. “I just really enjoy being with kids so I feel like that would translate over to teaching,” Creech said. She’d someday like to coach basketball, too.
Creech was the grand marshal of the Jenkins Homecoming Days Festival parade in August. State Sen. Johnny Ray Turner and state Rep. Leslie Combs presented her with a letter from then-Gov. Beshear congratulating her on being the nation’s leading scorer for the 2014-15 season. As she walked off the stage, they told her there was one more thing they had for her.
It was a road sign as big as the Jenkins city limits sign under which it is now posted as you enter coming from Pike County. It reads:
“Home of Whitney Creech
2015 National High School
Field Goal Scoring Champion”
65 Whitney Creech’s career high in scoring. She went 22-for-34 (1-for-2 from behind the arc) in a 90-78 win over Jackson County on Dec. 22.
Chances are there aren’t too many high school students who have been recognized with their own road signs. That’s the kind of thing that only happens if you don’t run away to perceived greener pastures.
Janice said going through the college recruiting process with Whitney was “nothing” compared to the pressure felt at home as rumors swirled about her transferring to a “county school.” One spring, Coach Addington had been convinced by a source in neighboring Whitesburg that Whitney had played her last game as a Cavalier and came to Janice seeking confirmation.
“It was a rumor mill that was crazy until Whitney’s freshman year,” Janice said. “ ... But it was always ‘she’s leaving, she’s not staying.’ It kept coaches in a frenzy.”
The case for leaving was there. The enrollment at Jenkins reported to the KHSAA for the 2013-14 school year was 191, 80 of which were girls. County rival Letcher County Central reported 941 students with 449 girls that same year. Jenkins’ roster this year features just eight players, including two seventh-grade twins who stand about 5 feet tall; LCC will likely have eight reserves on its bench during meetings between the teams this season.
The more versatile you can be, the more use they’ll have for you and the more reason they’ll have to put you out there and put you in the game.
Whitney Creech, Jenkins basketball player
Another school to which talking heads linked Creech was Perry County Central, with Randy Napier at the helm. He guided M.C. Napier, which consolidated into PCC, to the 1994 state championship and is the state’s all-time winningest girls’ coach. The Commodores have won nine 14th Region titles in 17 years, including three of the last six. An independent city district hasn’t won that region since Hazard won three straight from 1995 to 1997, a run which culminated in a Bulldogs state title.
“A lot of people questioned her staying here,” Napier said before his Commodores took the court against Jenkins on Dec. 14. “There was even talk about her coming to us because we were a little higher profile. ... Her family never discussed leaving here.”
Addington began scheduling games against Perry Central during Creech’s freshman season. Addington thought if Creech was going to get recognized by colleges, Jenkins would have to play bigger teams. The Cavaliers lost 87-51 that first year; Whitney scored 35.
Janice was working concessions that night. A pair of coaches from Northern Kentucky University came into the building. They were there to watch Kayla Rankin, then a junior for the Commodores, “but found Whitney,” Janice said. “They couldn’t believe she was just a freshman.”
NKU was the first school to offer Whitney heading into her sophomore year. An offer from WKU came soon after. Eventually dozens of schools were vying for her services. She was invited to two Big Blue Madness events but was never offered by UK.
“When that first one comes, you want more,” Whitney said. “You’re not satisfied. ... Now that you realize you’ve got that first one, you’re like ‘Well, let’s see if I can get this school or this school.’”
Despite the doubt expressed by some, a Division I dream was realized without having to leave the halls of Jenkins High School.
“You think about it,” Napier said. “She could’ve went a lot of different directions to have gotten a lot more glory and exposure. She stayed right here where she grew up. That tells me all I need to know about that kid.”
‘Bigger than basketball’
Jenkins’ gym has a brand new floor as well as automated retracting seats for the first time in its history. It will host the 53rd District Tournament this season, which Addington hopes will help propel the Cavaliers to their first region tournament since 2008.
“Last year we were so close to making it to the (district) championship game,” Addington said. “I think it’s in the back of their minds and can push them through it this time.”
Jenkins hasn’t reached 20 wins since the 1996-97 season and has had just one winning season in Creech’s time there. The Cavaliers are 6-4 this year with at least 20 games left to play. Losing so much, especially as many tightly contested games as they’ve dropped over the years, takes its toll.
“You just have to deal with it, learn from it and move on,” Creech said. “ ... You just have to turn the negatives into positives.”
The All “A” Classic — the unofficial state tournament in which only the 131 smallest schools in Kentucky are allowed to compete — will be tougher this year since Breathitt County dropped down into Jenkins’ region, but Addington expects the Cavaliers to be in the mix for the 14th Region berth to the statewide tournament in Frankfort come January.
“I always have high expectations for us, and when you’ve got a player like (Whitney) you’re always gonna have high expectations,” Addington said. “ ... She’s got a lot of pressure on her and she handles it better than I’ve seen anybody.”
I know she works as hard if not harder than anybody else in the state and the nation for this. There’s no one more deserving, I believe, than her for that award.
Jenkins Coach Ashley Addington on the prospect of Whitney Creech winning Miss Basketball
A run to the Sweet Sixteen, which moves to NKU this season, isn’t impossible but the odds don’t appear to be in Jenkins’ favor. An honor no player from Jenkins has ever taken home before, Miss Basketball, seems within reach, however.
Jaime Walz (Highlands) and Geri Grigsby (McDowell), first and second in career scoring in state history, each won the award after their senior campaigns. McDowell’s team lost in the 15th Region semifinals in 1977 and Walz’s Bluebirds reached the state quarterfinals in 1996. Those two married big-time numbers with postseason success; would voters consider Creech for the award if she became the state’s all-time leading scorer and didn’t reach a region tournament during her career?
“Comparing stats, I know people always say, ‘She’s not playing against this team or that team and that’s why she’s getting it,’ but she’s proven herself in these tournaments that we go to,” Addington said. “ ... I know she works as hard if not harder than anybody else in the state and the nation for this. There’s no one more deserving, I believe, than her for that award.”
In the meantime, Creech will keep doing what she does best. In the Dec. 14 game against Perry Central, she scored 61 points — 21 in the fourth quarter — and grabbed 27 rebounds in a win. It was her second straight 60-point outing of the season and third of her career. Just over a week later, she scored a career-high 65 in a 90-78 win over Jackson County.
Winning Miss Basketball or competing for a Sweet Sixteen would be “an incredible honor,” Creech said. At the end of the day, though, any shine she can bring to Jenkins will be rewarding enough for her.
“I think those friendships and bonds mean more than a state title,” she said. “It’s bigger than basketball, to me, this area.”
Top girls’ scorers
The top 10 scorers in girls’ state history, including Creech:
1. Jaime Walz, Highlands, 4,948
2. Geri Grigsby, McDowell, 4,384
3. Whitney Creech, Jenkins, 4,360
4. Kim Mays, Knox Central, 3,952
5. Carolyn Alexander, Hazard, 3,726
6. Lisa Harrison, Southern, 3,469
7. Mandy Harmon, Sheldon Clark, 3,280
8. Marialice Jenkins, Fordsville, 3,266
9. Erica Hallman, Holmes, 3,187
10. Sherry Mitchell, Muhlenberg Central, 3,155
Creech’s big games
The Kentucky girls’ record for points scored in a game is 81, by Geri Grigsby (McDowell). Whitney Creech’s career high is 64. “People say, ‘You gonna get that?’” Creech said. “That’s a lot of points to think about. That’s almost 20 more.” But no girl has scored 50 points or more in a game more times than Creech has over her career. Here’s a complete list of all 12 such games through Saturday (as reported on the KHSAA website):
65—vs. Jackson County on Dec. 22, 2015
64—vs. Clintwood (Va.) on Jan. 2, 2015
61—vs. Perry County Central on Dec. 14, 2015
60—vs. Lee (Va.) on Dec. 12, 2015
59—vs. Perry County Central on Feb. 9, 2015
57—vs. Jackson City on Jan. 22, 2015
57—vs. Pike County Central on Dec. 1, 2015
55—vs. Casey County on Dec. 21, 2015
54—vs. John I. Burton (Va.) on Dec. 11, 2015
54—vs. Pikeville on Dec. 1, 2014
52—vs. Breathitt County on Dec. 19, 2014
52—vs. Hazard on Jan. 26, 2013
Creech’s season-by-season scoring
5th grade: 5 points
6th grade: 93 points
7th grade: 375 points
8th grade: 576 points
Freshman: 754 points
Sophomore: 998 points
Junior: 1,050 points
Senior (through Saturday): 509 points
Jenkins vs. Montgomery County
What: First-round game in the girls’ Gateway Holiday Classic (eight-team tournament)
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Montgomery County High School Arena (games also being played in “The Barn” at Montgomery County)
Other first-round games on Sunday: East Carter vs. Harrison County (1:30 p.m.); Rockcastle County vs. Simon Kenton (6 p.m.); Scott vs. Henry Clay (8 p.m.)
Consolidation Coal Company, now known as Consol Energy, established Jenkins in 1912. It was named after George C. Jenkins, one of CCC’s directors. Its heyday came in the early part of last century, followed by a stint in the 1980s. Boasting nearly 10,000 citizens in 1940, its population has dwindled to just above 2,000 according to the latest census estimate.
Whitney Creech isn’t the first Division I basketball player to come out of Jenkins High School. Milton M. Ticco, known as Milt, played for the University of Kentucky under Adolph Rupp from 1940 to 1943. He averaged 7.5 points a game as a Wildcat and was named to the All-SEC second team his final season. Ticco went on to play in the National Basketball League (which later merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA) and in the minor league organizations of the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers. He died in 2002.