Daring to dream
Tiny Elliott County takes on the big boys in Kentucky's one-division basketball tourney
The chicken wings, cheeseburgers and slushies are free for the boys after every game, enthusiastically provided by proprietor Bobbie Howard.
"Nobody really done anything special for them," she said. "A lot of them I've known since they were babies. They make us proud. This is a town a lot of people thought nobody would ever come from."
The Lions have come roaring out of this rugged, remote Appalachian hamlet of roughly 700 people along the Little Sandy River to capture the imagination of a state that cherishes high school basketball. They have rekindled memories of the glory days of mountain ball, when tiny communities like Carr Creek or players like King Kelly Coleman and Richie Farmer wandered out of Eastern Kentucky to become folk heroes memorialized in books.
The two-time defending regional champion Lions are 25-2 and ranked No. 1 in the Lexington Herald-Leader computer ratings, No. 2 in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal computer ratings and No. 4 in the state AP poll.
They have made believers out of esteemed basketball minds like former national championship-winning Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who declared on his radio show that the running, pressing Lions are his all-time favorite high school team.
And they've made believers out of less-famous hoops fanatics like Jim McGuire, who drives 254 miles round-trip from Bryantsville, Ky., for every game -- not because the grocery store owner and retired Army man has a relative on the team, or any other connection to Elliott County. Just because of the way the Lions play -- leading the state in scoring (86.3 points per game) and victory margin (31.4 points). The Lions have maxed out at 132 points in a game and have topped 100 five times.
"I started watching them last year and fell in love with them," McGuire said, red slushie in his hand at the Penny Mart after watching Elliott County crush Fleming County 105-60 on Feb. 12. "They're more fun than any team I've ever watched.
"I have visions of '54 when I see these guys."
McGuire showed his basketball knowledge there, and in doing so alluded to the romantic notion that hovers over this team: with a little luck come March, the Lions could be modern-day "Hoosiers."
It was 1954 when the Milan Miracle took place, Bobby Plump making the last-second shot that beat Muncie Central, and became the signature small-school triumph in Indiana high school basketball history. Three decades later, they filmed "Hoosiers," and the legend went nationwide.
Indiana has since forfeited any chance to replicate the Milan Miracle, shamefully scrapping its single-class state tournament in favor of four champions from four classifications. That leaves Kentucky and Delaware as the only remaining states to play an all-comers tournament that crowns a single champion -- and Delaware doesn't do it like Kentucky, which every March brings 16 regional winners to the state's cathedral of basketball, Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Elliott County, the only high school in a poor, obscure county of about 7,000, would qualify as a modern-day Milan. The school with only 325 students in grades 9-12, ranking 211th in enrollment of the 279 schools listed on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Web site, will battle next month for the state title against the big boys from Louisville, Lexington and greater Cincinnati.
Only 38 public schools are smaller than Elliott County. The school's senior class numbers 74, with 42 of them boys.
And in a state notorious for illegal recruiting, this is an organic power. The nucleus of this team grew up playing together and turning down whispered offers to leave for more attention at bigger schools. They've been nurtured for years by a taciturn old coach until they're now poised to defy the long odds against how far a small school can go.
"This team is homegrown," said local photographer Randy Evans. "That's what's so special about it. This is true-blood basketball in Sandy Hook, now."
To find Sandy Hook, you get off Interstate 64 at Morehead. From there, turn onto serpentine, two-lane Highway 32 and leave the modern world behind.
Wind past the small family cemeteries dug into rocky hilltops. Take note of the caution signs for farm tractors on the road. And if you drive too fast, you'll miss the turn for Main Street, which cuts through what passes for downtown.
"Don't bat your eyes," said Rick Mays, in his 28th year as coach of the Lions. "The whole town's the school, now. We do have half a McDonald's, at least."
McDonald's moved in last year and does indeed share building space with a gas station. There is a Subway in town, too. But for the most part, you're much closer to map dots like Ordinary, Moon, Blaze, Dewdrop and Relief, Ky., than you are to contemporary convenience.
The nearest shopping mall is about an hour away, along the West Virginia border. The nearest supermarket is a 30-minute drive. Same with the nearest movie theater.
Many of the jobs are far away, too. Elliott County sits just outside of Kentucky's coal belt, and the land isn't flat or fertile enough for large-scale farming. So the people here work as pipe fitters and boilermakers in Ashland, or at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex state prison, or for the local school district.
Follow Elliott CountyEvery Elliott County boys' basketball game is live online, courtesy of WLKS Kick 102.9. Listen here.
Region 16 tourney (single elim.):
Sweet 16 (at Rupp Arena):
Elliott County produced the late country music star Keith Whitley and the current Kentucky House Democratic floor leader Rocky Adkins (a former Lions basketball player), but this lily-white, dry county is no font of prosperity. The median household income in 2007 for Sandy Hook was $18,323, far less than half the national average of $50,233. About 40 percent of Elliott County's children live in poverty, which is 17 percent more than the state average. Local school revenue per pupil in the county is about one-third of the state average.
Despite the difficulties inherent in living here, there is a paucity of self-pity and a surplus of pride. Retired teacher Frank Olson moved here from California in the 1960s with his wife, who was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer helping fight Appalachian poverty. They never left, sending two sons through Elliott County High School, because they love the people.
Asked what it would mean for the Lions to win the state title, Olson said, "Everyone would be really happy, but we are anyway. It's not the end of things or the beginning of things."
It would, actually, be the culmination of a few things: Mays' decades-long tenure as coach, as he gives way to assistant Greg Adkins next year, and the high school careers of the greatest basketball class Elliott County has ever known.
And truth be told, not everyone shares Olson's measured perspective on the societal impact of this team.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for all of us," Elliott County school superintendent John Williams said. "Not if, but when we make it all the way, it will be the greatest thing to happen to this community."
Senior Night has been a success, playing out before another near-capacity audience in the Lions' 1,150-seat gym. (On some nights, an overflow crowd is seated in the school's Performing Arts Center and watches the game on closed-circuit TV, with radio play-by-play piped in.) Framed jerseys have been bestowed and a video tribute has been shown, complete with a musical accompaniment that included a country song written and sung by Dale Ferguson, the father of leading scorer Jonathan Ferguson.
"They play the D
Shoot the three
Make them ol' ball nets sing"
Then the Lions went out and lived up to the lyrics, burying Fleming County beneath an avalanche of steals, fast breaks, back-door layups and 3-pointers, and a couple of dunks by 6-foot-7 sophomore center Timmy Knipp, the younger brother of starting forward Chris Knipp. Afterward, the coaching staff and families of the seniors ate ham and chicken salad in the home ec room while chewing over the performance.
"Wasn't pretty," Dale Ferguson allowed, after spending much of the night screaming at an official who T'd up his son -- a ref Dale said is a friend of his, or at least was before this night.
"That might be the ugliest 100 points I've ever seen," Mays grumbled softly.
That's how high the bar is set here, where once there were no lofty expectations at all.
There is no football team at Elliott County. Never has been. This is basketball country -- but even in its chosen sport, the school has had scant glory.
Until this group of boys became sophomores, the school had never won the 16th Region title -- and "never" goes back a long way in Kentucky. The state tournament began in 1918 and the region tournaments date back to the early 1920s.
The 16th traditionally had belonged to Ashland Blazer, the winningest program in state history. It once was snared by tiny Rose Hill Christian, which was led by an eighth-grader from West Virginia who spent two years at the school -- a kid by the name of O.J. Mayo.
Elliott finally broke through in 2007, the momentous event that moved Dale Ferguson to write his song.
"They made it to Rupp
And let me tell you
It's been a long, hard ride"
Mays envisioned it years earlier, when he began working with twins Evan and Ethan Faulkner and Jonathan Ferguson at the school's eight-week summer camps that are free to local kids. They were second-graders then, invited even though most kids didn't start playing until fourth or fifth grade.
When they weren't in camp, they played two-on-two constantly -- the twins against Jonathan and Dale Ferguson.
It became apparent very early in life that Ethan and Evan would have to play together -- they were too competitive to play against each other without games ending in arguments and fights.
"That's all I asked of their coaches growing up," said the Faulkners' father, Kyle. "Save their mother and me some grief and put 'em both on the same team."
Today, the 2,000-point career scorers are a smart, swaggering, seamless tandem in the backcourt -- passing to each other intuitively, shooting and driving with equal aplomb, and also crashing the glass relentlessly. Most of all, the 6-1 gym rats are the pacesetters for Elliott County's go-go tempo, pushing the ball up the floor at a breathtaking clip for high school.
The only thing harder than guarding them is individually identifying them.
"The twins are my neighbors," said Lavinia Kelly, owner of Lavinia's Beauty Shop. "And I still can't tell them apart."
After Elliott County crushed Whitefield Academy 85-24 in a small-school tournament earlier this season, coach Chad Carr said of Evan Faulkner, "It would be nice to clone No. 2."
Whitefield forward Jeff Gardner responded, "He is cloned. Look at No. 1 [Ethan]."
It will be time to break up the clones after this season. Evan has signed a letter of intent to play at Radford of the Big South Conference. Ethan has signed with Division II power Northern Kentucky.
"We knew going into the whole recruiting process that the opportunity might not come where we could play together," Evan Faulkner said. "We prepared ourselves for that."
Jonathan Ferguson prepared himself for high school stardom by getting his teeth kicked in by his dad on the dirt court at home, shooting at a goal nailed to the barn.
"Me and Jonathan must have played three or four thousand times," Dale Ferguson said. "For about six years, we played one-on-one every day.
"I was too hard on him, probably. I blocked every shot he shot until he cried sometimes, then I'd let him score. You know, life don't come easy."
Life for Dale Ferguson includes operating Ralph's Market #2 in Isonville -- the second of his father's two grocery/convenience/anything-and-everything stores in the area. As the sign on the roof reads, "If we don't have it, we'll get it." (The unwritten subtitle, according to Dale: "If we can't get it, you don't need it.")
A copy of the Ten Commandments is posted outside, above the front door. To the right of that is a sign saying the store is "an official wildlife check station." Two old, non-digital gas pumps sit out front.
Inside, amid the mounted deer heads and stuffed turkeys, you can buy timing belts, heads of lettuce, Halloween costumes and sledgehammers. Oh, and Elliott County basketball T-shirts and car flags.
Behind the counter there are pictures of Dale's son, who has quietly moved into the state's top 15 in career scoring with more than 3,000 career points (still well behind all-time leader Coleman, the colorful mountain boy who scored 4,263 points for the Wayland Wasps in the 1950s). Ferguson is weighing college offers from Marshall, Air Force, Campbell and some non-Division I schools in the area. Mississippi State has asked for game tape, and Kentucky and Western Kentucky have inquired about his willingness to walk on.
A big state tournament performance could change things. When the diminutive mountain hero Farmer scored 51 points in a losing effort in the 1988 state final against future NBA star Allan Houston and Louisville's Ballard High, it helped pressure Kentucky into offering him a scholarship. (Virtually every mountain boy grows up a Kentucky fan, and virtually all mountain residents pray their boys will play for the Wildcats.) Farmer went on to be a key member of the Unforgettables at Kentucky, the group that lost to Duke in that epic 1992 NCAA tournament game.
Nobody is voicing it publicly, but a similar hope exists for Ferguson, an athletic, 6-3 shooter.
"I wasn't near the ballplayer Jonathan is," Dale said. "I couldn't keep up with him once he got to eighth or ninth grade."
Dale Ferguson played at Elliott County for Mays. So did the Faulkners' dad, Kyle, a postman who drives 150 miles a day delivering mail around the county. So did every member of Mays' current coaching staff.
They all were part of some good teams, but this group is altogether different.
They might have grown up in a backwater town, but these kids were never basketball bumpkins. In addition to the summer camps, Elliott County has an AAU organization that sends teams across the country to compete. For the past two summers, the Faulkners and Ferguson have played with the Derek Smith All-Stars out of Louisville. And the Lions were the smallest school in the famed Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this season, winning the consolation bracket and going 3-1 against some of the better teams in the nation.
"We've played against so many good players and teams that we're used to it," Ethan Faulkner said.
"Everyone says we're a great underdog story," Evan added. "We lost that mentality a long time ago."
Around the time they won a national tournament in Texas as seventh graders, to be exact. By then, Mays knew he had something special and began steering his program toward the future.
He had the Faulkners dress with the varsity as seventh graders. In eighth grade, Ethan was a starter, while Evan and Ferguson played significant minutes off the bench. Two years later, the starting five all were sophomores -- the Faulkners, Ferguson, Chris Knipp and Jonathan Morgan. Their jersey numbers matched their positions: 1 (Ethan), 2 (Evan), 3 (Chris Knipp), 4 (Ferguson) and 5 (Morgan).
When the Lions won their first regional title that year, every emergency vehicle in Elliott County was waiting at the county line to parade the team bus back into town, lights flashing and sirens blaring. The few residents who didn't go to the game responded by flipping their porch lights on and off as the parade rolled by. That parade was repeated last year, when the Lions won the region again.
Now they're hoping for more than just a regional championship to celebrate.
"Hopefully we'll have a humongous parade this year," photographer Evans said.
Reaching that first state tournament was a dizzying dream come true for a small school with scant basketball heritage. Much of Elliott County relocated to Rupp to watch the sophomore five. The school quickly sold its allotment of 500 tickets for $8 each, then bought another 700 tickets at $15 but resold them to its fans for $8 -- just to keep it fair and meet demand.
The Lions won their first game in Rupp against mountain rival Shelby Valley but lost in the quarterfinals to Warren Central, a school of 1,150 students in Bowling Green.
Last year, the younger Knipp brother replaced Morgan in the starting lineup as a freshman. That gave the Lions the height they lacked -- and in fact, Knipp is the team's greatest raw talent, a potential high-Division I recruit. (His ability to block shots, shoot and handle the ball are offset by periods of lassitude, making the tattoo inside his left wrist appropriate: "You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them." Sometimes you wonder whether Knipp does not expect enough of himself.)
With Knipp in the lineup in 2007-08, the Lions were matched in the opening round with Mason County, a powerhouse of about 840 students, led by 6-7 Mr. Basketball Darius Miller, a Kentucky signee. (The Kentucky High School Athletic Association does a blind draw of regional winners, instead of seeding its final 16.) Elliott County held a six-point lead with 3:01 left, but Mason rallied to win 66-62, its closest game on the way to winning the state title.
"With a couple breaks we could've won it last year," Elliott County principal Larry Salyer said. "I think it would be a wonderful experience for a community this size to bring a state title home."
Doing that has become a countywide obsession. Nowhere does that obsession burn hotter than in the Lions' locker room.
"Anything short of playing on Saturday night in Rupp for a state championship," Ethan Faulkner said, "we're going to be disappointed."
The Penny Mart's competition for the Sandy Hook loafing crowd is the Frosty Freeze, just a short bit up Highway 32. It's been there for 36 years, and when the regulars get together around the Formica tables, the conversation is never dull.
In October they played cards and talked politics.
"We got Bush put out and Obama put in," declared Judy Pennington, wife of the proprietor.
When reminded that Sen. John McCain carried the state of Kentucky in 2008, Pennington shot back, "Didn't carry the Frosty Freeze."
Once the election was settled, they went back to playing cards and talking Elliott County basketball.
"Rook is the thing in here," Pennington said. "They have a game in here every morning at 7, and then another in the afternoon. And they cheat.
"And when they ain't playing rook, they talk basketball. We love basketball around here and we hope these boys do good."
They have done much good, these sons of the hardscrabble hills. More good than they probably realize yet.
"It's brought the whole town together," Pennington said. "It's brought people together that don't even speak to each other."
Entering the postseason
The top 10 teams in the Lexington Herald-Leader's boys' rankings.
|1. Elliott County (85.6)|
|2. Scott County (85.2)|
|3. Shelby Valley (83.1)|
|4. Eastern (82.9)|
|5 (tie). Jeffersontown (82.4)|
|5 (tie). Ballard (82.4)|
|7. Corbin (82.3)|
|8. Holmes (81.3)|
|9. Warren Central (81.1)|
|10. Boone County (81.0)|
The Faulkners are handed some maroon and white balloons to take home, trappings of the party. They hug Bobbie Howard and thank her, for the umpteenth time, for her generosity.
"They're all good kids," Howard said. "You couldn't ask for any better."
The boys walk out under a clear winter sky and a nearly full moon that bathes the town, the bare trees and the surrounding hills in a soft glow. Out here, so far away from everywhere else, it's not just quiet -- it's country quiet. Tranquil. Pure.
Sandy Hook is sleeping, dreaming of throwing the parade to end all parades.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.