SALYERSVILLE — For Kentucky high school basketball players, there are many emotions — elation, anticipation, nervousness — that go with boarding a bus to travel to play in the Sweet Sixteen.
Guilt is not normally among them.
But since last Friday's tornado outbreak that devastated several areas of Kentucky and inflicted massive property damage in and around Salyersville, nothing has been normal for the 15th Region champion Magoffin County Lady Hornets.
Boarding the team bus Wednesday to go to Bowling Green for Thursday's 6:30 p.m. matchup with 16th Region champ Ashland in the Houchens Industries KHSAA Girls State Basketball Tournament brought complex feelings.
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"It's so bittersweet," said Magoffin senior Nichole Fletcher. "We're mourning with our community, with so many people who've lost so much. In a way, I almost feel guilty to be going to play basketball when so many people are hurting at home. Part of me, I feel like I should be there to help. Yet, we're so excited to be going to state."
Not a single one of the 14 girls who will dress out for Magoffin County in the E.A. Diddle Arena on Thursday lost their homes to the destruction caused by last Friday's storms. But like everyone else in Magoffin County, they have searing stories of riding the storm out.
Junior Morgan Arnett and family live about a mile outside Salyersville. When word came early Friday evening that Magoffin County was on the verge of a direct hit from the tornadoes that had already wreaked havoc in other Kentucky towns, she and her family gathered pillows and blankets and took refuge in a closet beneath a stairwell.
"There were six or seven of us (in the closet)," she said. "It was pretty crammed."
Magoffin head coach Steve Miller and his wife, Mary Ann, were at home when word came that their basement-less house appeared to be in the exact path of the tornado.
They rushed to their car to make a fast break to someplace with a basement. The storm hit with the couple near the road that leads to Magoffin County High School. They pulled off and tried to wait the storm out.
Their car rocked violently back and forth. At one point, Miller said he saw something large and white pass overhead. "I can only assume it was a refrigerator, a washer or dryer or something like that," he said.
Eventually, there came "almost an eerie calm," Miller said. "That's when we drove away."
'We've already had a miracle'
If you've only seen pictures of the impact caused by last Friday's storm, they do not convey the full scope. On Tuesday, I visited Sal yersville. The damage in and around the Mountain Parkway town was almost apocalyptic.
Large trees were snapped off like No. 2 pencils. Trees still standing were strewn with fiberglass insulation and other debris. Light poles were twisted into grotesque angles. Where once there had been houses, in many cases, there were now only shells.
I saw one older gentleman sitting atop a wooden post (where I'm guessing a mail box had once been) outside a destroyed house looking drained and just shaking his head.
Salyersville's downtown business sector was spared, but the "fast-food row" outside town was mostly smashed. The Subway store was flattened. The Advance Auto Parts is now just parts.
At least two schools, the Salyersville Grade School and the Herald Whitaker Middle School, have substantial damage. A sign on the middle school door commanded 'Do Not Enter By Order of the State Fire Marshal.'
Magoffin County Superintendent Joe Hunley was touring the middle school with insurance agents late Tuesday afternoon.
Whenever school begins again, the Magoffin County High School — which has some roof damage but is structurally unharmed — will probably have to serve the middle school students, too, Hunley said. Students from the damaged elementary will likely be fanned out to other grade schools in the county, he added.
"This is not going to be easy for anybody," Hunley said of what's ahead. "It's not going to be easy for the students, the faculty, the parents."
The Magoffin County High football field, a facility that had recently been upgraded at considerable cost, is a shambles.
Asked if it was retrievable, head coach Chester McCoy shook his head. "I'm not sure I see much that looks retrievable," he said.
When you see all the property damage in Magoffin County, it's hard to fathom that there were no storm-related fatalities in the county.
"We were in a staff meeting and somebody said we needed a miracle," Hunley said. "I said, 'We've already had a miracle — nobody here got killed.'"
Not sure how to 'celebrate'
Amid all the stress since Friday's storm, the Magoffin County girls' basketball team played its two most important games of the season. No coach in the history of Kentucky basketball may have been dealing with more uncertainty than Miller was before Magoffin's rescheduled 15th Region semifinal game against Shelby Valley on Sunday.
Because phone service was problematic after the storms, Miller did not know for sure how many of his players got his text telling them to meet the team bus at 4 p.m. for the trip to Pikeville's Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center.
Only 10 of the team's 14 players showed up to catch the bus. The other four, it turned out, were staying out of the county and came to the game in Pikeville on their own.
The bus ride from Magoffin County to Pike County took the team through some of the most severely storm damaged areas in the state.
"A lot of us were crying," said Fletcher. "It was really emotional, first off, for all of us to see each other again after the tornado, to know that our teammates were OK. But then, to see all the damage, it was a hard trip."
For some of the Magoffin players, their arrival at the Pikeville arena brought a bonus. "It was the first electricity some of us had seen in awhile," Fletcher said. "In the locker room we were like 'Running water! Wash your hands!'"
When it came time for a pre-game talk, Miller said he told his players that, given the circumstances, as long as they gave all the effort they could, they would be winners whatever the scoreboard said. "But I also told them that, if we could go out and win, we could be a part of bringing some joy to our community at a time when it was really needed," he said.
Magoffin won its semifinal 49-46, then came back the following night and beat Paintsville (49-40) to earn a Sweet Sixteen berth.
In 2006, after the Lady Hornets won their first regional title, Salyersville threw a celebration for the ages. The line of cars that followed the team bus home literally stretched for miles. School officials opened up the gym, then bought pizza for a crowd of some 750. Each player was introduced.
On Monday night, with so many in the county hurting, no one knew for sure how to "celebrate."
Said Miller: "Finally, I just went into the locker room and asked the girls what they wanted to do. They said, 'Coach, let's just go home.'"
In 2006, signs celebrating the regional champs were all over Salyersville.
On Tuesday, I found one.
Outside the Prater Memorial Methodist Church, in between the signs for free food and free water for those displaced by the tornado, was a banner saying Congratulations Lady Hornets.
While straightening the Lady Hornets sign, Valerie Patrick explained why it was important to have it up now.
"With everything this town has been through," she said, "those girls have been our ray of sunshine."
Over at Dyer's Downtown Barber Shop, Evan Dyer said, "It's still pretty big, them going to the state. It gives us something to look forward to."
So, no guilt. In earning the right to get on that bus Wednesday to travel to the state tourney, it seems the Magoffin County Lady Hornets are helping their damaged community in the best way they could.