Boys' Sweet 16: Warford helps Muhlenberg

After Muhlenberg County beat Apollo to win the 3rd Region championship last week, the sweetest thing Mustangs Coach Reggie Warford witnessed wasn't his players cutting down the nets.

It was seeing folks coming together in celebration.

"After the game I saw people hugging each other who were barely speaking to each other before," Warford said.

"I told my wife, 'This is more than a basketball team going to the state. This is a unifying factor for our county.'"

No coach and team in Kentucky had a more turbulent season than Warford and Muhlenberg County.

When the new school opened last August, following the consolidation of Muhlenberg North and Muhlenberg South, it threw together bitter arch-rivals.

"Imagine Kentucky and Tennessee merging," Warford said. "That's what it was like.

"This is one of the most intense basketball counties in the state. Trying to bring everybody together didn't seem possible.

"To be honest, I had no hope that this team could get to the state tournament with all the issues we faced."

Warford was the target of criticism that bordered on hostility after he was hired early last summer.

Muhlenberg County superintendent Dale Todd said he decided to go outside the area to find a coach to "send a message that we were going to give everybody a level playing ground as we tried to blend two rival schools."

So instead of hiring Steve Sparks, who had great success coaching Muhlenberg North for 13 years, Todd went with Warford.

"Mr. Warford won the job in his interview with the principal and athletic director," Todd said. "They felt his personality, demeanor and experience were exactly what we needed."

Critics saw it as Todd rewarding an old friend.

Warford and Todd had been high school teammates at Drakesboro (Class of 1972), one of seven Muhlenberg County schools lost to consolidation 20 years ago.

Warford went on to play at Kentucky, and then moved into coaching. He was an assistant at several colleges, including Pittsburgh, Iowa State and Long Beach State.

He was coaching high school ball in Pittsburgh before returning home.

Warford knew he faced a challenge when he arrived back at Muhlenberg County.

He had to take players from North, such as Joe Gabbard and Colby Joe Carver, try to mesh them with South players, including Lemon Gregory, Josh Hawkins and Michael Civils, and also incorporate the talents of his sons, Grant and Tiger, who came with him from Pittsburgh.

But Warford wasn't prepared for the level of animosity aimed at him, or the "mean spiritedness" between some of the players.

"Some of it was nasty, the language, the fights," he said. "I really didn't know if we could ever become a team."

Todd, meanwhile, was surprised by "the resistance from a small pocket of adults, a vocal minority," who kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of Warford.

"I warned Mr. Warford it would be a tough battle, but my assumption was it would be bringing the kids together, not the adults."

Warford kept his nose to the coaching grindstone, but it took a while to see positive results. At the end of January, the Mustangs were an ordinary 12-9, albeit against a difficult schedule.

"We'd win one, lose one, win one, lose one. ... It took time for everybody to adjust to each other's playing style," Gabbard said. "We weren't a very good team, but we kept practicing and practicing to get there."

Everything started to turn around in February, and Muhlenberg County closed the regular season with an impressive 76-52 rout of Owensboro Catholic.

Warford was feeling good until he went into the locker room after the game and found out three players were quitting, including Civils, a standout sophomore who was averaging in double figures.

"I tried to talk them out of it," Warford said, "but I couldn't. I let them go and told the team that if anybody else wanted to go, then get out. All I need is five."

That moment was a turning point for the Mustangs.

"That was the night we became a team," Warford said.

Gabbard, the team's star, waited around a while before approaching Warford.

"He hugged me and told me, 'Coach, this is our team now. I swear to God I'm going to get you to Rupp."

Civils had second thoughts about quitting, and with the blessing of his teammates, came back, although he had to endure a lot of wind sprints before rejoining the team.

Gabbard, among others, joined him in running those sprints, a gesture not lost on Warford.

"When I saw that, I told the other coaches, 'We're about to be something special.'"

Muhlenberg County will play West Jessamine in the first round of the 93rd PNC/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen on Thursday.

Todd said the school has sold more than 2,500 tickets, and will send 32 school buses full of fans to Lexington.

The Mustangs' success is a tribute to the players' perseverance, and a reflection of their coach's determination.

"All the adversity we went through made us stronger," Gabbard said. "There was a lot of drama with the adults, but we overlooked it, and coach did a great job making us a team."

A Sweet Sixteen team.

"Nobody's going to tell me I can't do something," Warford said. "But in all honesty, it's turned out better than I could've ever hoped.

"I still can't believe we're going to Rupp Arena."