High school boys’ basketball coaches ranked seven juniors among the top 25 of the Herald-Leader’s preseason player rankings.
Most of those players hail from current juggernauts, programs that have had lengthy periods of success or schools with big populations — in some cases, like David Johnson at Trinity and Michael Moreno at Scott County, all three boxes get checked.
Pendleton County fits none of those criteria. In the 2016-17 school year it boasted just 760 students (391 boys). The Wildcats have played in three Sweet Sixteen tournaments — 1965, 1971 and 2005 — but have never advanced out of the first round. In its previous 58 seasons, Pendleton County played for a regional championship just seven times (for perspective, Harrison County — a similarly-sized program with which it competes in the 10th Region — has won nine region titles).
The Wildcats don’t have the championship pedigree of a Scott County or the intimidating aura of a Trinity, but they do have something the big dogs do: a junior who will be in the Mr. Basketball mix come 2019.
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Meet Dontaie Allen. The 6-foot-6 wing this season is averaging 30.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, which would give him his second straight season averaging a double-double if those numbers hold. Despite an increased shot volume as the clear go-to guy for the Wildcats, he’s averaging 63.9 percent shooting from the field and a 40-percent clip from behind the three-point arc.
Pendleton County is 10-3 and on pace to best its 18 wins from a year ago, the most it’s had under Coach Keaton Belcher, who played on the 2005 region winner before a college playing career at Belmont University. Allen and the Wildcats should have a strong shot at the program’s first-20 win season since 2005-06, and of making its own trip to Rupp Arena come March.
“I feel like there’s not a team on our schedule we can’t beat,” said Belcher, who’s in his fourth year leading the program. “I’m not saying we will beat ’em, but we can win if we show up and play.”
‘I don’t really like this’
Like many young boys who were the tallest kid on the team, Allen’s basketball career began down low.
“I started off as a post player about fifth grade,” Allen said. “Then I was like, ‘Man, I don’t really like this,’ so I shot a lot. I probably shot 700 shots a day that whole summer. Going into sixth grade year was probably when I got a lot better.”
Learning to play defense against guards was the toughest part of becoming perimeter-oriented, but Allen got the hang of it. He began starting for Pendleton County’s varsity team in the eighth grade, and Belcher — then an assistant — said it was clear he had a scorer’s mentality. That’s “fantastic,” Belcher said, but he’s also measured in how often he gets his own.
“If you look at our stat sheet, he may have more points than everybody else but he’s also getting five or six assists a game,” Belcher said. “He’s not looking to shoot it every time down the floor. He knows if he gets his teammates involved we’re gonna be successful.”
Belcher said Allen’s best quality as a player is his rebounding.
“He has a knack for knowing how that ball’s gonna bounce off the rim whether his teammates shoot it, an opponent shoots it or he shoots it,” Belcher said.
Allen credits his mother, April, for his rebounding attentiveness. She graduated from Pendleton County as the all-time rebounds leader for the girls’ team, a record that stood until just a few years ago. His dad, Tony, works out with him frequently, but it’s momma who hounds him about the glass.
“Last game I had six rebounds and you can bet I heard about it after the game,” Dontaie said with a laugh.
Dontaie currently has scholarship offers from three in-state schools — Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Northern Kentucky — as well as IUPUI and Winthrop. Other schools are keeping tabs on his performance and reaching out, although getting in touch sometimes can be difficult; last week during the Traditional Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic, he handed his phone over to his parents and told them to keep it for the week.
“I tried to give him his phone yesterday because Western Kentucky had been calling him after they watched him play and I was like, ‘Go ahead and just take it so you can reply back so they don’t think you’re (ignoring them)’ and he was like, ‘No mom, I don’t want it,’” April said. “And that’s not because he doesn’t want to talk to them; he’ll definitely get to ’em and he’s excited about talking to ’em. But he wants to stay focused, and I love that.”
Recruiting players is illegal under the bylaws of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. But, it happens, and most coaches and players deal with it as inevitability rather than an exception.
It’s especially certain if you’re one of the state’s top prospects and play for a non-powerhouse in a small town.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say Dontaie and his family haven’t been contacted by any other high schools or prep schools,” Belcher said. “I think it says a lot about Dontaie and his loyalty to Pendleton County. He loves our county, he loves our school, our community.”
April and Tony confirmed that advances have been made towards their son. They said somewhere between five and 10 schools have attempted to pry him from Pendleton County. Even if they’d wanted to move in an attempt to bolster Dontaie’s profile, justifying it for his two younger brothers and younger sister would not have been easy. He receives ample exposure on the AAU circuit, they said.
“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” Tony said. “The relationship that he and Coach Belcher have I think is a pretty solid one. … It’s not easy to just pick up and move, especially cause of one kid. We’re pretty grounded and pretty loyal to the program. For us it was an easy decision.”
Where he’s at right now might be the ideal spot for someone like Dontaie, a homebody who only leaves to attend classes, practice or play basketball. In addition to a court in his backyard, Allen has unfettered access to the school’s gym and that of a church near his house. He said there’s not a lot to do in Pendleton County, which probably makes it easier to get excited about early-morning and late-night workouts.
“If there’s a player in the state of Kentucky that works harder on his game individually than Dontaie Allen, I would love to meet him and see his workout routine, because every day at 6:30 a.m., Dontaie is at our gym working on his game,” Belcher said. “For the past three years he’s been the first student to walk into the building every single day and we don’t start class until 8:05. And it’s not like it’s wasted time. He’s in there getting a sweat in, working on his ball handling, working on his jump shot, working on his post moves. It’s amazing how driven he is despite all the hype that he’s always had and despite the scholarship offers.”
Pendleton County isn’t steeped in basketball tradition, but it is a “basketball county,” Belcher said.
“We’re not northern, we’re not central Kentucky. We kind of play second fiddle to a lot of different schools and areas in Kentucky,” said Belcher. “When we do have a good team, which we do this year, our fan base is incredible. … People come out and take notice.”
Those who watch this season will get to see a good group of Wildcats and a talent unlike any that’s come through the program. Dontaie passed 2,000 points for his career last week and likely will finish his time at Pendleton County as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and in the top five for assists.
“His teammates are his friends, and he knows that he’s gonna leave a legacy at this school,” Belcher said. “He’s a great role model for our youth. He’s a great role model for his peers. He knows if he stays at Pendleton County, which he’s done, that his legacy will mean more than if he went to a bigger-name school.”
That kind of impact is something nowhere else but home can offer.
“I have kids coming up to me like, ‘Hey, man, you’re my hero,’” Dontaie said. “Stuff like that is different for me. You can tell it touches them. County love.”