Southwestern Coach Steve Wright's mind is focused on one task: getting his 12th Region champion Warriors ready for next week's PNC/KHSAA Boys' State Tournament in Rupp Arena.
Wright's heart, though, is beating proudly not only for Southwestern, but also for three other teams in the Sweet Sixteen. He has old ties to 9th Region champ Boone County (his alma mater, Class of 1975), and relatively new ties to 13th Region champ North Laurel and 16th Region champ Rowan County. Brad Sizemore, in his first season as coach at North Laurel, played for Wright at South Laurel and was an assistant there. Shawn Thacker, who coached Rowan County to the Sweet Sixteen finals last year and has the Vikings back in the big show, was an assistant to Wright at South Laurel from 1993-2000.
Wright is thrilled to see the coaches he mentored succeed. "If you can influence a young person when they're a player or a coach, and they feel inspired to do what you do, that's the greatest gift you can receive," he said. "And I know they had a positive impact on me."
In 21 years at South Laurel, Wright's teams won six region titles and a state championship (2005). Sizemore played on the Cards' 2001 state tournament team. Wright recalled how Sizemore "bawled his eyes out" when they won the region. Wright also remembered how when Sizemore was in college at EKU, he "logged thousands of miles" making the trip from Richmond to London to serve as a volunteer assistant at South Laurel because he was so passionate about coaching.
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Wright was in Rupp Arena last year when Thacker's Rowan County team made it to the finals before losing in double-overtime to Christian County. "I lived every bounce of the ball with Shawn. I was exhausted when it was over."
The Sweet Sixteen draw did the coaching trio no favors. Rowan County and North Laurel face off in the opener. That means Thacker, who was Sizemore's freshman coach at South Laurel, is matched against his former player. If Southwestern beats Hopkinsville in its first game, it will play the Rowan-North Laurel winner in the quarterfinals.
■ A few hours after Bullitt East's Trey Rakes hit a 35-foot last-second shot to beat Pleasure Ridge Park 47-44 in the 6th Region finals Tuesday night, he was at home, taking a shower, when he heard his dad (and Bullitt East assistant) Junebug Rakes, yelling that Trey's game-winning shot was being shown on ESPN. "Some friends told me they were going to submit it to SportsCenter, but I had no idea it'd be on," Trey said Wednesday afternoon. "I watched it at least 20 or 30 times last night, and 20 or 30 more times this morning." Rakes said when he launched his shot, "I knew I had enough on it, but I was kind of fading to the right and couldn't see if it was going in." When it did, Rakes sprinted down the court in celebration, joined by ecstatic teammates. March Madness in a heartbeat.
■ Nobody had a better Sunday than Greg McQueary. He coached Boone County's boys to their first 9th Region title in 16 years, and shared the moment with his son Zane, a 6-foot-6 senior standout for the Rebels. McQueary then watched Boone County's girls win their region title. McQueary's daughter Lauren is a junior reserve for the Lady Rebels. "It was a special day to see them both achieve something they'll always remember," said Greg McQueary, who has his own Sweet Sixteen memory. He played for Taylor County in the 1983 state tournament. He went on to play on Murray State's 1988 team that beat North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and almost upset eventual champ Kansas (and Danny Manning) in the second round. "But playing in the Sweet Sixteen is still my greatest thrill and experience as a basketball player," McQueary said.
■ Here's how the boys' Sweet Sixteen teams were rated in the state by Dave Cantrall before the district tournaments began: 1. Trinity; 3. Scott County; 7. Bullitt East; 10. Bowling Green; 11. Oldham County; 21. Southwestern; 22. Marshall County; 23. Clark County; 25. Hopkinsville; 30. Rowan County; 33. John Hardin; 40. Boone County; 43. Knott Central; 110. Apollo; 126. North Laurel; 134. Johnson Central.
■ Indiana University Coach Tom Crean was on hand for the 15th Region finals and got a look at Johnson Central's Shane Hall. The 6-7 sophomore had 34 points, including 10 out of 10 free throws, and nine rebounds in the Golden Eagles' win over East Ridge. "Shane put on a show," Johnson Central Coach Tommy McKenzie said.
■ Clark County, despite graduating six of its top seven players, has won 30 games for the second season in a row and is back in the Sweet Sixteen. That should earn Scott Humphrey some votes for coach of the year. The Cards scored 106 points in two state tournament games last year. Charlie Rogers is the only returnee who scored in Rupp last year. He had one point.
■ Trinity winning the 7th Region and Bullitt East taking the 6th means there are no Louisville public schools in the boys' Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1962 when St. Xavier won the 7th and Bloomfield won the 6th. This year's 7th finals between Trinity and St. X was the first time private schools met in that title game since a Flaget-St. X matchup in 1955.
■ Trinity isn't the only school that has a chance to become the first to win state titles in football and boys' basketball in the same school year. Bowling Green, unbeaten in 5A football last fall, is in the Sweet Sixteen. Scooter Hollis and Nacarius Fant, a quarterback-receiver combo in football, also star on the basketball court.
■ My favorite moment from the region tournaments: Rowan County's Adam Wing and Ashland Blazer's Corey Gregg chatting amiably at mid-court 45 minutes after the Vikings beat Ashland 59-56 in the 16th Region finals. Two talented, physical players who had gone nose-to-nose not only in the region title game, but throughout their careers. The mutual respect was obvious.
■ Madison Central's boys had a great season, going 31-2, including a win over No. 1 Trinity. "But people aren't going to remember the 31-2," Indians Coach Allen Feldhaus Jr. said. "They're going to remember you didn't make the state tournament. We didn't achieve our ultimate goal." Woodford County upset Madison Central 60-55 in the 11th Region semifinals. "They played one heck of a game," Feldhaus said. "For some reason, we just didn't have the fire defensively we had in big games throughout the year." The Indians will return some key players next season, including Dominique Hawkins, Ken-Jah Bosley and Quan Taylor. Their 2012-13 schedule will include the Marshall County Hoopfest, the King of the Bluegrass and the Joe B. Hall Prep Classic. As for the disappointing end to this season, Feldhaus said 26 years in coaching has taught him, "It happens. You've gotta take the good with the bad."
■ Paul Laurence Dunbar's upset of Boone County in the girls' Sweet Sixteen on Wednesday was a bit of deja vu for Boone County Coach Nell Fookes. The only other time Dunbar made it to the state tournament, it upset Fookes' Boone County team in the 1997 quarterfinals. Fookes has 634 career victories in 27 years with the Rebels. She had been coaching Boone County three seasons when Dunbar first-year coach Sarah Van Horn was born.
■ Boone County senior star and Florida signee Sydney Moss was named girls' player of the year in Kentucky by Gatorade.
■ Bill Smallwood is resigning as boys' basketball coach at Berea. He had two stints with the Pirates totaling 19 years (1988-2001, 2008-12) and had an overall record of 283-243. Coaching at a small public school was a challenge that Smallwood relished. Competing was more important than winning, but Berea did both under his watch. He was "proud of the character-driven program we had" and the young men it helped to mold. Smallwood said he was also appreciative of the school that gave his three daughters a great education. He had opportunities to coach elsewhere, but "that validity was all I needed to stay here and do my thing at a great school." Smallwood, 54, hopes to stay connected with basketball by serving on the All "A" Classic board.
■ This year's Russell Athletic Ohio-Kentucky all-star games will be April 7 at Thomas More College. Game director Randy Ward said Trinity's Mike Szabo will coach the Kentucky boys, assisted by Mike Allen of Bryan Station and Shawn Thacker of Rowan County. Stacy Pendleton of Manual will coach the Kentucky girls, assisted by Mark Evans of Mercy and Bill Bradley of Ashland Blazer. The boys' roster: Nathan Dieudonne and Charles Foster of Trinity; Max Clemons and Jeril Taylor of PRP: Tamron Manning of Scott County; Jaylen Beckham of Bryan Station; Jaysean Paige of Perry Central; D.J. Townsend and Adam Wing of Rowan County; Matt Day of Buckhorn; Devon Rowan of North Oldham; Sawyer Williams of Owen County; Lemon Gregory of Muhlenberg County, and Jagos Lasic of Morgan County. The girls will be announced next week.