By J.R. VANHOOSE
For The Independent
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) calls its “Sweet 16” basketball tournament “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
For kids growing up dreaming of playing basketball when they get into high school, it is. What makes the tournament so great is that all high schools in Kentucky, regardless of enrollment, all play for the chance to participate in the “Sweet 16” and be crowned Kentucky’s state champion. This, however, was not always the case.
The first ever state tournament sanctioned by the KHSAA took place in 1918 and saw Lexington High School beat Somerset in the state championship game 16-15 at the Centre College gym in Danville. Prior to 1918, teams were declared “state champions” by just going undefeated, accepting the challenge of similar undefeated teams, and remaining unbeaten.
In 1916, eight teams accepted written invitations to participate in a tournament at Centre College to decide which team was the best. After the KHSAA took control of the tournament, a written challenge continued to be the way to declare a champion. The tournament pairings were not even completed until the day before the tournament because it was not clear which teams would show up. However, by 1921, 10 district tournaments were held throughout the state, by 1922 there were 16, and by 1924 18 districts were competing in Kentucky to determine the best teams to play in the state tournament.
From 1927 until 1933, the state had two classes in basketball, “A” and “B.” The reason was that each state tournament champion since 1918 had been from Lexington or Louisville. This was a chance to give the little schools a chance to compete at the state level. Although it was a class division, there was a slight twist to the rules. Lexington High Coach John Heber recalled, “What we did in the district tournament was rank the teams from the largest down to the smallest. The upper half was automatically in ‘A’ class and the lower half in ‘B’ class. Then when they got to the regional tournament they did the same things with the teams. Well, the teams in the ‘A’ class in the district could wind up as ‘B’ teams in the regional and vice versa. And that carried on right through to the state tournament on the same basis.” Although this class division was tried to help the smaller schools, it soon appeared that they didn’t need the help.
In the very first classed tournament, Millersburg Military Academy, a class “B” school, defeated London, a class “A” school, in the finals 34-25. In 1928 the legendary championship game between class “A” Ashland and class “B” Carr Creek, a school with forty-one students, went into four overtimes before Ashland finally won 13-11. Both teams were invited to the 1928 National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament in Chicago. Ashland won the whole tournament finishing with an astounding record of 37-0 while Carr Creek won its first three games before losing to Vienna, Ga., 22-11 in the quarterfinals. It was those two teams, Ashland and Carr Creek, that put Kentucky High School basketball on the map.
Small teams continued to appear in the Kentucky High School championship games. In 1929 Corinth High lost to Heath in the finals 21-6, but returned to the title game in 1930 to beat Kavanaugh 22-20 for the title. Then in 1931 little Tolu lost the state championship game to powerful Louisville Manual 34-23. It appeared that the small schools were playing with and even better than the big schools and that there was no need for the two class state tournament.
Many schools believed they were “good enough to win the whole thing.” Many of the coaches across the state did not agree with the classes and there was a strong push to return to a one-class system. Lexington High Coach John Heber again gave insight to the situation. “I think most of the demand to stop classification came from the smaller schools. We had enough small schools win the state basketball tournament that though winning the ‘B’ was nothing.” In 1932, the Kentucky High School State Tournament returned to its one-class system. Hazard, a small school in the mountains of Perry County, won the tournament with a two-point victory of Louisville Male.
As the tournament continued over the years big schools won most of the state titles, but every few years a small, Cinderella would come into the tournament with the backing of the ever-larger crowds and walk away as a state champion. Teams such as Midway, Sharpe, Hazel Green, Inez, Brewers, Cuba, and Carr Creek have gone down in Kentucky High School history. But, as consolidation took place, fewer and fewer of the small schools seemed to make it to the state tournament.
From 1957 until 2000, 32 teams from Lexington or Louisville appeared in the state finals and during that stretch it appeared that small schools could just not compete with the big ones anymore. But Cinderella’s did appear — North Marshall in 1959, Breckenridge County in 1965 and 1995, Earlington in 1967, Glasgow in 1968, Simon Kenton in 1981, and Paintsville in 1996. Just like the small schools of the late 1920s and early 1930s, these schools have kept the dream alive for other small schools to follow, and the hope that Kentucky High School basketball will never go back to a class tournament.