Instead, fate kept throwing curve balls at the Campbell County guard that would have buckled the knees of Mike Trout.
Joel Day’s sophomore season ended in the 2016 10th Region quarterfinals when Mason’s County’s Pig Williams threw in a heave just ahead of the final buzzer to beat Campbell County 72-70.
Day’s junior year ended in the 2017 10th Region finals when a buzzer-beater from Scott High’s Jake Ohmer denied the Camels a trip to Rupp with a 78-77 defeat.
The latter loss so distressed Day, he has kept his 10th Region runner-up award by his bed ever since.
“For motivation,” Day says. “Because I didn’t want to feel that way again. And to remind myself every day how much I wanted to play in Rupp.”
Given all that, you can imagine Day’s internal distress when he took an awkward fall in a Campbell County practice shortly before this year’s 10th Region Tournament and got up to find that his back was “not feeling right.”
When a visit to the doctor yielded the verdict of “a fracture in his spine,” Day might easily have given in to despair. He had one chance left to try to make it to Rupp Arena and now this?
Yet as serious as “fracture in the spine” sounds, the doctor told Day and his family there was no reason to think that playing more basketball would make the injury worse.
“The doctor cleared him, but said it was all a matter of how much pain he could stand,” says Campbell County Coach Aric Russell. “He played the whole 10th Region (tournament) in tremendous pain. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a tougher kid.”
When 10th Region champ Campbell County (28-5) faces 2nd Region winner University Heights Academy (23-7) and its star guard KyKy Tandy Thursday at noon in the 101st Sweet Sixteen, Joel Day will fulfill his hoops ambition by playing in Rupp Arena.
It is hard to imagine anyone who will play in Rupp this week fought through more over the past weeks to get there than Day has.
The Campbell County senior said his family, assured that he would not suffer further injury by trying to play, was on board with his decision to try. “They knew how much this meant to me,” Day says.
Still, before Campbell County faced Harrison County in the 10th Region quarterfinals, Russell said the Camels’ coaches were not sure whether Day would be able to go. “But he came over during warm-ups and said he thought he could do it,” Russell said.
That turned out to be a good thing because Day made six straight free throws in the final 54 seconds to clinch a 70-60 Camels victory.
In the region semifinals, fate had a little fun with Day and Campbell County.
The team whose prior two seasons had ended in the 10th Region tourney on buzzer-beaters watched Clark County’s Jordan Graham rise for a 15-footer in the final seconds of a game that was tied at 63.
For once, the shot that would have ended the Camels’ season missed.
Campbell County won the game 76-71 in overtime as Day finished with 31 points. “Given his situation, just an unbelievable individual effort,” Russell says.
The 10th Region finals were a rematch of the prior season’s thriller with Scott High.
Campbell County again found itself in a nip-and-tuck battle for the right to play in Rupp.
By the fourth quarter, Day’s back was “kind of locking up on him,” Russell said. “Late in the game, he got fouled and we weren’t sure he could even straighten up to shoot the free throws.”
With 13 seconds left and the chance to play in Rupp Arena in his grasp, Day stepped to the foul line.
He “straightened up” well enough to hit the two free throws that clinched a 68-62 Campbell County victory.
“We would not have won (the region) without him,” Russell says.
Whenever this season ends, Day expects there to be ample time to give his back the rest it needs to heal.
First, Day will fulfill his dream Thursday afternoon by following in his older brother’s footsteps and playing in Rupp Arena for Campbell County in the Sweet Sixteen.
“That just means everything,” Joel Day says.