High School Sports

Clay County vs. Ballard: The rivalry that showed the Sweet Sixteen’s best

Clay County Coach Bobby Keith, front, and players rode through Manchester on a fire truck in celebration of the Tigers winning the 1987 boys’ Sweet Sixteen championship. It was the first boys’ basketball state title for a team from the Eastern Kentucky mountains since Carr Creek in 1956.
Clay County Coach Bobby Keith, front, and players rode through Manchester on a fire truck in celebration of the Tigers winning the 1987 boys’ Sweet Sixteen championship. It was the first boys’ basketball state title for a team from the Eastern Kentucky mountains since Carr Creek in 1956.

Only three times in what this year becomes 100 years of Boys’ Sweet Sixteen history have the same two teams met in the state finals in back-to-back years. The most enduring of those meetings occurred three decades ago between Clay County and Ballard.

In 1987, Bobby Keith’s Clay County Tigers, led by junior guard Richie Farmer, edged Ballard 76-73 in overtime before 19,000 fans in Rupp Arena. The win brought a state championship to the Eastern Kentucky mountains for the first time in 31 years.

The following year, Scott Davenport’s Ballard Bruins, led by junior guard Allan Houston, survived a 51-point onslaught from Farmer in the state finals to score an 88-79 victory over Clay County before a sellout crowd of 19,575 in Freedom Hall.

“It’s been 30 years, and people still talk about those two championship games,” Farmer said Wednesday. “I think that tells you something.”

Actually, what made Ballard vs. Clay County special was more than stellar basketball.

Pride of the mountains

By the time Keith brought Clay County to the 1987 Sweet Sixteen, no team from the mountains — the 13th, 14th and 15th Regions — had cut down the nets following a boys’ state tournament since Carr Creek in 1956.

Only two years before, Keith and Clay County had come agonizingly close to ending that drought. In 1985, a Clay team led by 6-foot-5 junior forward Sean Pennington and 6-6 junior center Woody Asher — and starting Farmer as a freshman point guard — led Hopkinsville by six points in the state finals with three minutes left.

That made Hoptown rallying for a 65-64 win excruciating. “With three minutes to go, we had the game won,” Farmer said. “Then they started pressing, and we turned the ball over. We were close enough to taste that state championship.”

Clay County’s 1987 roster was not physically imposing. Against Fort Thomas Highlands in the Sweet Sixteen first round, the Tigers had no starter taller than 6-foot-2 senior Charlie Robinson.

Around him, were four guards. Richie Farmer was listed as a 6-foot junior and his younger brother, Russ, as a 5-11 sophomore. They were joined by 5-11 junior Russell Chadwell and 5-11 junior Kevin Jackson. The top sub off the bench was burly 6-foot sophomore Eugene Rawlings.

“We listed them taller than they were,” says Mike White, a Clay County assistant in 1987. “Richie, Russ, Russell Chadwell, all those guys were more like 5-9, 5-10, than what we were listing them.”

In the 1986 Sweet Sixteen, Pulaski County had bounced Clay County in the first round with a defense designed to get the ball out of Richie Farmer’s hands. “We decided we would rather Richie beat us as a passer than a shooter,” said Dave Fraley, who coached Pulaski County to the 1986 state title.

For the 1987 state tournament opener, Highlands employed the same plan. Farmer kept giving up the ball — to Chadwell, who hit 15 of 21 field goals and scored 43 points in a 90-80 Clay County win.

The largest crowd ever to see a high school basketball game in this state, 24,041, filled Rupp Arena for the Tigers’ state quarterfinals meeting with LaRue County.

“Coach Keith, he was a master motivator, and that night he was in the locker room (saying) ‘Boys, they’re scalping tickets outside for $75.’ He really had us jacked up,” says Robert Nicholson, a reserve on Clay County’s 1987 team.

Behind 19 points from Richie Farmer and 16 from Russ, Clay survived a tough LaRue County challenge, 62-56.

The Saturday of the 1987 Sweet Sixteen is where Richie Farmer transitioned from “good player” to Kentucky high school hoops icon. He scored 18 of his 24 points in the first half as Clay County bounced Madison Central 78-58 in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, Ballard’s road to the finals had been trying. Led by junior forward Kenneth Martin and sophomore guards Mark Bell and Houston, the Bruins had beaten Marshall County by three, Mason County (with Deron Feldhaus) by two and Paintsville (with John Pelphrey) by seven.

Now, Ballard was essentially the visiting team in the state finals. “Playing Clay County in the state tournament in Rupp Arena was like playing a road game against Kentucky,” says Davenport, now the Bellarmine University men’s coach.

In a tense game that went to overtime, Richie Farmer scored Clay County’s final nine points of regulation. He hit the jumper that put the Tigers ahead to stay in the OT. He finished with 27 points and Clay County won 76-73.

The next day, when Clay County left Lexington, a caravan of some 25 cars formed behind the team bus. By the time the Tigers reached Manchester, police estimated 600 cars had joined to create a line that reached 10 miles in length.

The rematch

Bobby Keith had grown up in Clay County. He had played in the 1957 and ’58 state tournaments for the Tigers. His whole coaching life had been dedicated to winning a state title for his school.

Yet after he had it, he wanted more.

“At that time, it had been quite a bit of time since anyone won two in a row (Male in 1970 and ’71),” says Larry Sizemore, an assistant on the 1987 Clay County team. “With what we had coming back, we wanted to be the one to do that, too.”

Ballard had its star players back, also.

So while the 1988 state finals in Freedom Hall was a rematch of the prior year’s, it followed a very different script. After Ballard lost a 92-88 double-overtime game to Clay County in the semifinals of that season’s Louisville Invitational Tournament, Davenport decided he would make a strategic change if the teams met again.

For the state finals, he moved the 6-5 Houston to the point and shifted the 5-8 Bell to a wing. “(Clay County) played so well defensively as a team, Mark Bell couldn’t slice through them because, if he got around a guy, there were always guys waiting for him,” Davenport said. “We couldn’t go through them, so we needed to go over them.”

With Houston passing over Clay County’s traps, Ballard pulled away after halftime. The Bruins snapped Clay County’s 46-game winning streak against Kentucky teams with an 88-79 win. Martin had 24 points and 14 boards, Houston and Bell scored 23 each.

In defeat, Richie Farmer had the game of a lifetime. The Clay County star hit 20 of 32 field goals, nine of 14 three-point shots, and scored 51 points. Only Wayland’s “King Kelly” Coleman, who had 68 points in the 1956 consolation game, ever scored more in a Sweet Sixteen contest.

“If I could ever be said to have been in ‘The Zone,’ that was the night,” Farmer said. “I just wish we had won.”

The postscript

Last August, at 75, Bobby Keith died from a heart attack. Richie Farmer and the other four starters on the 1987 Clay County state championship team served as pallbearers for their coach.

The day of the funeral fell on Davenport’s 35th wedding anniversary with his wife Sharon. Even so, the coach drove from Louisville to Manchester for the funeral.

In battling for the 1987 and ’88 Sweet Sixteen titles, two coaches and two teams representing schools and communities that had all but nothing in common developed a genuine respect that has endured across the decades.

Says Farmer: “If I had to pick out one thing from that time, I think the rivalry with Ballard, the respect going back and forth between the teams was something I really appreciated. I think it was a special thing.”

Davenport feels that, too. “To me, Ballard-Clay County, it was not only what high school sports should be about, it’s what all sports should be about, period,” he says.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Kentucky will celebrate the 100th year of the boys’ state high school basketball tournament when the Sweet Sixteen plays out in Rupp Arena from March 15-19. The Herald-Leader is getting the party started a little earlier.

Today’s column by Mark Story on the Clay County-Ballard rivalry of the 1980s and Josh Moore’s feature on Mason County’s Chris Lofton are the sixth and seventh articles in a series we’re publishing in the newspaper and on Kentucky.com over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season. Visit Kentucky.com to read previous installments of the Sweetest Century series.

Our coverage examines the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisits memorable games, champions and moments and looks at where the event goes from here. We’re exploring the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recalling the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.

We hope you are enjoying it.

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