Mark Story

The Sweet Sixteen school most excited to play in Rupp? It’s not even close.

From the time Estill County star Caleb Bonny and his classmates were little boys playing youth basketball, they broke huddles with two words.

Rupp Arena!

“Everybody knew what that meant in this county,” Bonny says.

What “Rupp Arena” meant in Estill County was decades of yearning and frustration balled up into one.

For the first 100 years (1918-2017) in which the Kentucky Boys’ Sweet Sixteen crowned our state’s basketball champion, Estill County High School did not earn even one invitation to the party.

“What you have to understand,” says William Hardy, who has broadcast Estill County games on the radio for the past 27 years, “is that, deep down, many of us were not sure the day would ever come.”

Last Tuesday night, the day came. At long last, Estill County punched its ticket to the Sweet Sixteen by beating Knott County Central 44-40 in the 14th Region finals. On Wednesday, the Engineers will open the 101st Sweet Sixteen when they face 13th Region champion Corbin at noon in Rupp Arena.

After winning the 14th Region for the first time, the Estill County basketball team kept the game ball and trophy close by during practice last Friday. Tim Webb

In Estill, a rural county of some 14,375 located 51.1 miles southeast of Lexington, the basketball breakthrough has made for a week like no other — grown men weeping, a standing ovation in chemistry class for a student.

“And lots of hugging,” Estill County Coach Jon Bentley says. “Surreal and euphoric are the words I use.”

‘Beating our head against the wall’

To grasp the current giddiness in Estill County, you must understand the school’s enduring history of basketball frustration.

It wasn’t just that Estill County had never won a boys’ hoops region before this year. The Engineers had only made a region finals one prior time.

Up until 1977-78, Estill County played in the 11th Region. The Lexington-centric 11th has long been one of the most difficult paths to the state tournament.

Estill County senior guard Caleb Bonny is the school’s all-time leading scorer. Tim Webb

“I think one reason the Sweet Sixteen seemed like such an unattainable goal here is all the years we spent beating our head against the wall in the 11th,” says Blain Click, a former Estill County High School principal and basketball coach who is also the son of an ex-Estill County principal.

In 1955, Estill County almost did the unthinkable. The Engineers made it to the 11th Region finals, only to be denied a trip to the Sweet Sixteen by a 70-55 loss to Berea.

For the 1977-78 season, Estill County transitioned into the 10th Region with schools such as Clark County, Montgomery County and Mason County. Around Irvine, hopes were high that the road to the state tournament would become more accessible.

It did not.

In Estill County, they still lament 1992. The locals were convinced their 1991-92 squad, led by future University of Louisville player Brian Kiser, was going to be their state tournament team.

Instead, Estill beat Bracken County in the 10th Region quarterfinals, but Kiser suffered an ankle injury in the game. He could not play in the semifinals against Nicholas County and Estill lost without its star.

After that, some began to despair that the now-closed Irvine High School’s 1948 team would forever be the only one from an Estill County school ever to play in a Sweet Sixteen.

“That 1992 loss was a killer,” Click says. “It really hurt.”

In 2005-06, Estill County was reassigned to the 14th Region with schools such as Hazard, Breathitt County, etc.

Alas, even in the 14th Region, Estill County’s path to the state tournament kept being blocked by a persistent nemesis. From 2011 through 2017, Knott County Central eliminated the Engineers in the region tourney four times.

Still, people in Estill County held out hope that the class that included Bonny, twin brothers Andrew and Lane Doty and Kevin Richardson, among others, might be the one to break through this season as seniors.

March magic

Maybe in 100 years basketball fans in Estill County will not have a photographic memory about everything that has happened this past week.

How sophomore point guard Joe Benton’s long-range shooting sparked an Engineers second-half rally that led to an overtime win over Cordia in the 14th Region semifinals.

Richard Johnson, left, and Cory Stringfield, right, unload boxes of Estill County 14th Region Basketball Championship T-shirts that were sold at Fan Zone in Irvine last Friday. Tim Webb

The way the Engineers built a double-digit lead of their own on Knott County Central in the region finals, withstood a big charge by KCC and pulled out a four-point win.

How Hardy’s voice cracked with emotion over the radio as he proclaimed that region finals victory “a win for all the prior Estill County players who never got to go to the Sweet Sixteen.”

When Benton walked into his chemistry class the morning after the region finals, “Everybody stood up and started clapping,” the sophomore point guard said. “It was pretty cool.”

Click, with his long family history with Estill County High School, keeps thinking about all the years of striving that went into the dream of seeing Estill County play in the Sweet Sixteen.

“I am not ashamed to admit, I’ve lost control of my emotions a couple of times,” Click says.

Brenda Flynn, center, talks to Charlotte Richardson, left, as they stand in line to buy Estill County’s 14th Region Basketball Championship T-shirts, Friday afternoon, March 9, 2018. Tim Webb

Maybe the best moment is yet to come. If Caleb Bonny and teammates chant “Rupp Arena” to break from their next huddle, they will be doing so in Rupp Arena.

“For as long as I can remember, this was the goal of Estill County: Let’s get a group and let’s get to the Sweet Sixteen,” Bonny says. “I’m just incredibly happy I could help do this for the county.”

Boys’ Sweet Sixteen

When: Wednesday through Sunday

Where: Rupp Arena

At stake: Boys’ state high school basketball championship

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