Clark County boys’ basketball has had some tough times of late. Ousted in the 40th District Tournament two years in a row, the Cardinals returned no seniors. And, as the school year began in August, their longtime coach, who led the team to three 10th Region titles in 13 seasons, was fired under still-undisclosed circumstances.
It’s the kind of setback that could devastate a program for years.
Enter new head coach Josh Cook.
Cook, a 32-year-old who led Mercer County to the Sweet Sixteen in just his second season there last year, has excited this one-high-school town’s players, parents and fans with his style of play and his demeanor on and off the court.
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“He’s got a vision, I can tell you that,” George Rogers Clark Principal David Bolen said last week. “He’s got a vision of where he wants to go and where the program’s going.”
Junior forward Will Philpot remembers being at teammate Ryan Cooper’s house when they heard the 12th Region coach of the year would take over their program.
“We were just so excited. We were blown away,” Philpot said of the hire.
A renewed optimism brought 75 hopefuls to Clark’s open tryouts this fall. Cook whittled them down to 10 juniors and seven sophomores to set the foundation of his new-look varsity Cardinals.
“The thing that I’m really impressed with is the fact that he has built personal relationships with the kids,” Bolen said. “He’s very open and honest with them. … He lays it on the table: This is your potential. This is your role. This is the role I need you to play on the team. The kids have been very receptive to it.”
Cook’s Cardinals have gone 6-4, so far, and ride a three-game win streak capped by a 62-46 neutral-court win over Jeffersontown on Thursday at Lexington Christian’s holiday event. They next play at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Lexington Catholic’s Traditional Bank Holiday Classic, where they will take on the winner of Monday’s Marina California-Breathitt County matchup.
“Our guys are buying in with what we’re trying to do,” Cook said. “Obviously, it’s taking us a little bit of time trying to develop our kids and just putting the system in. … The last three games, our kids have taken a step in the right direction. I’m excited to be at GRC. We’ve got a great group of kids to work with.”
The Cardinals start four juniors and a sophomore, led by junior point guard Chase Taylor, who averages 9.8 points per game and had eight assists and six points against Jeffersontown. But Taylor earned a spot on the bench early in the first period Thursday when the Cardinals weren’t able to break Jeffersontown’s full-court press. Cook demanded his point guard take charge on the floor.
“I was kind of mad at him because he was yelling at me,” Taylor said, smiling, after the game. “He just told me to protect the ball and not worry about it. Just play the next play.”
What the Cardinals lack in experience, they try to make up for in tenacity, averaging 32.9 rebounds per game. Clark outrebounded Jeffersontown 45-27, which included 19 offensive boards. Philpot, who averages 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, dominated the Chargers going for a game-high 19 points and 18 rebounds, 11 offensive. Sophomore guard Jordan Graham nearly doubled his average, scoring 18 points.
Clark Athletics Director Jaime Keene sees Cook using more of his bench than past Clark teams might have done and says Cook’s pressing and attack-the-rim style has drawn praise from parents and fans.
“Typically, when I hear things, it’s when things are not going so well,” Keene said. “From that end, I’ve yet to get one negative comment, complaint from parents, teachers, community members. Anything that I have heard has been really positive feedback on his approach to the game, his approach to the kids and being a part of the community.”
Clark has not been to the Sweet Sixteen since 2012, a long drought for a proud program.
“They want to win,” Bolen said of Clark’s fan base. “They want to win, and they want to be back in the hunt. Trust me, with it being two or three years (that) we’ve not been out of the district, it’s been tough.”
Cook made the move to Clark from Mercer County for family reasons, so his wife, Shana, could live closer to her parents in Mount Sterling after the birth of a daughter this year.
“When this opportunity came, big picture, it’s somewhere I wanted to be long-term,” Cook said. “It’s awesome, because there’s passion in the community. … When you have communities that have had success in basketball — that’s the first step for me.”
The circumstances of the firing of longtime coach Scott Humphrey have still not come to light. Principal Bolen acknowledged it was a difficult decision, but declined to comment further.
Regardless, Cook’s hiring could not have come at a better time for the school.
“We stayed optimistic that we were going to get a quality applicant, and we did,” Keene said. “There were some good applicants, but we felt like we hit a home run with Coach Cook with what he brings to the program, and what it means for our stability for many years.”
Traditional Bank Holiday Classic
Where: Lexington Catholic’s Alumni Gym and Bueter Gym
When: Various times beginning at noon Monday. Semifinals at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Finals at 7:30 p.m. Friday