High School Basketball

Sweet 16: Making memories in the mayhem

John Steinbeck, writing in 1945 about Monterey, California's Cannery Row as it was a decade earlier, called its sardine fisheries "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

With the exception of "a stink" — unless the smell of popcorn and hot dogs causes a bout of nausea for you — the same terms might apply to the 92nd National City Sweet Sixteen boys' state basketball tournament.

Certainly there is noise with fans screaming and bands blaring and cheerleaders (in the case of Hazard High School) yelling "Here we go, Bulldogs, here we go!"

And if your team wins, as West Jessamine High did in Wednesday's first-round game against Hazard, it can be a poem, a dream and a nostalgia all wrapped into one. It was the first tournament appearance in West Jessamine's history; its predecessor, Jessamine County High, lost in the 1990 quarterfinals.

"Our school is glowing," said West Jessamine student Ainsley Murrell, 17. "Now that we are here, it's wonderful to have a win."

It's those kind of stories that give the Sweet Sixteen its charm — its tone, if you will. Jimmy Russell of Lawrenceburg has attended Sweet Sixteen games off and on since the late 1940s, and he keeps coming back to see the drama unfold, as when tiny Cuba High took the championship crown in 1952.

"It's no different whether your school has 200 students or 2,000 students," he said. "And when the smaller schools get to come, it's a big benefit for their community and all the community will show up for the games. To me, it's enjoyable to see all the teams in the state of Kentucky have a chance to get to the Sweet Sixteen."

Going to the state tournament is nothing new for the Hazard Bulldogs, who won the whole shebang in 1932 and 1955, and who made their 30th appearance on Wednesday.

Then again, it was new and kind of sobering, too, especially for freshmen cheerleaders unaccustomed to the pageantry. They were solemn before the game because they were cheering in Rupp Arena, home of their beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats, said Michaelle Sandlin, mother of 14-year-old cheerleader, Laiken. "They're just so excited," she said.

"It's just such an honor for them to go out on UK's floor and cheer," said Paula Combs, mother of 15-year-old cheerleader McKenzi. "They've worked 10 years, cheerleading all through grade school, just to get to be a freshman and cheer on UK's floor."

And to see the team, "to see those kids that have been raised up around our feet, it's awesome to see them out there playing and the potential that they have," Combs said. "And scouts that potentially show up to look at them and see if they can go on and play college ball. We love it. We wouldn't miss it."

Nor would Julie Akemon, mother of cheerleader Jade Clemons and 2-week-old Lila Akemon, who was tucked into a baby sling that Julie wore over her shoulder. Julie couldn't find a baby sitter, so she took Lila to the game. The infant cried at halftime, but then settled down into a cozy sleep despite the crowd roaring around her.

"She's probably used to it because before she was born, I was at district games and regional games cheering," Julie Akemon said.

Many in Hazard's band wore miners' helmets to show pride in the coal-mining of their region. Helmeted Hazard High student T.J. Searcy, 19, held up a paper sign that read "Have electricity? Thank a miner."

"It means a lot for Hazard to be here so we can promote coal, because that's a big part of us," Searcy said. "We wear 'em to every game so we can promote it."

For West Jessamine fans and students, the tournament was a way to come back from tragedy. Last week, West Jessamine junior and soccer player Ryan Robinson, 17, died of MRSA, a drug-resistant staph infection. Fans said the death had galvanized the basketball team to play all that much harder.

"Hazard has more experience, but we have more heart and determination for it because we need to win it for Ryan," said Brent Bailey, 15, a freshman. Robinson was close with several members of the basketball team, Bailey said.

"I know they're going to play the game for that young man, because he loved sports, too," said Danny Shearer of Nicholasville, a former city commissioner. "And if he could, he would be here today."

John Daugherty, a retired teacher who now works in West Jessamine's front office, remembered Ryan as "a wholesome kid and a competitor."

So the tournament had served as a way for students "to channel their energy, mentally and physically, in doing something positive for him," he said. "Last week was tough, on the kids and the school. But hopefully we can turn that into a positive."

And they did, screaming their hearts out in the final minutes of the second half as it became clear that West Jessamine would win. Among those cheering the Colts was Keith Harstad, 16, a sax player in the band who had spiked his hair so that his head appeared to be some kind of giant sea urchin.

"I just used a bunch of hair gel and stuck it up with a hair dryer," Harstad said.

For West Jessamine student Emily Bender, 15, the outcome wasn't in doubt.

"I knew we were going to win anyway, because West is the best," Bender said.

In the final minutes of the game, she lifted 4-year-old brother Fred up onto her shoulders after West scored a three-pointer.

"We're definitely going to win this for Ryan Robinson," Emily said afterward of the tournament championship. "Everybody just knows that he's going to be watching over us and helping us make it through this competition and win for him. It's all for him."

If that happens, the Sweet Sixteen will not only be a poem, a nostalgia, and a dream, but a tribute and a memorial.