High School Basketball

Mike Fields: Shelby Valley wins one for the little guy

Little ol' Shelby Valley is the giant of Kentucky high school basketball after claiming the Sweet Sixteen championship Saturday night.

"This victory is for all of the mountains and Eastern Kentucky," Coach Jason Booher said after his Wildcats bashed big-city Ballard 73-61 in the title game of the PNC/KHSAA Boys' Sweet Sixteen.

Shelby Valley, which opened in 1990 after the consolidation of Dorton and Virgie, is the first mountain team to win the state championship since Paintsville in 1996. It is also the first Pike County school to ever claim the big trophy.

Most of the 15,048 fans in Rupp Arena knew before tip-off that Northern Iowa had stunned No. 1 Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. But it's safe to say few of them thought Shelby Valley could pull a similar upset.

Ballard, which has an enrollment (1,800) three times bigger than Shelby Valley's, was looking for its 1,000th victory and fourth state title.

The Bruins were coming off a victory over No. 1 Scott County in Saturday morning's semifinals, and their signature pressure defense figured to give Shelby Valley all kinds of headaches.

The Wildcats had won back-to-back All "A" titles, but no school had ever won a small-school championship and the Sweet Sixteen in the same year.

As confetti fell from the Rupp Arena rafters onto the celebrating Shelby Valley players, tournament MVP Elisha Justice was asked what was the bigger surprise — Kansas losing or Shelby Valley winning?

"Kansas losing because we were the favorites in my book," he said with a smile.

The Cats certainly played like it. They went ahead of Ballard to stay on Zach Ramey's three-pointer midway through the first quarter.

Shelby Valley went on to lead 34-20 late in the half. Ballard made several runs at the Cats over the next 20 minutes, but never could catch them.

Booher, like Justice, wasn't shocked by the outcome. He told his players before the game that they wouldn't be the first to pull off an unexpected championship.

He told them about Breckinridge County's 1995 victory over Pleasure Ridge Park, and about Richie Farmer leading Clay County past Ballard in the 1987 title game.

Still, Booher admitted his Cats were "like Cinderella, a good ol' small mountain team coming to Rupp Arena and beating up on the big schools," like Mason County in the semifinals and Ballard in the finals.

"These guys didn't back down, they took it to 'em."

Ballard had its fans, but the majority of the crowd was for Shelby Valley, especially when it sensed the upset was going to happen.

"Coach told us the fans would be rooting for the mountain team," senior Ashley Hatfield said. "We kind of believed him and kind of didn't. But at the end of the game I looked around and the entire lower arena was standing up. It was unfathomable all those people were cheering for us."

Booher knew his team had another fan, as he remembered Chad Witt.

When Booher was 13, he and his best friend Witt were on the church bus out of Radcliff that was involved in the Carrollton crash that killed 27 people on Interstate 71. Witt was killed that May night 22 years ago.

Last year Shelby Valley dedicated its season to Witt, and it won its first-ever state tournament game in his honor.

Saturday night, Booher remembered Witt again.

"He's always in my thoughts and prayers," Booher said. "I know he's looking down on me and celebrating and high-fiving up in heaven.

"And I appreciate that."