PAINTSVILLE — It was not until the 1921-22 school year that the first boys and girls high school basketball teams was organized at Paintsville. One of the teachers that school year, John Sterling Jackson, had a great love of athletics, so it was under his care that the basketball history of the school began. Coach Jackson was born in Allen Co., KY on October 18, 1900. He had graduated from Western Kentucky Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) with a BA and received a Master’s Degree in Chemistry from the University of Illinois.
One of the first steps in creating a high school team was to apply for membership into the governing body of high school sports in Kentucky – the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA). On January 9, 1922, Principal D. A. Taylor, who later coached Paintsville, sent the following letter of application to Mr. Ralph E. Hill of the KHSAA:
“Please find the enclosed application for membership in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, together with the
fee for service. Please send literature covering rules, etc. of the association + dates for tournament. Note that you now put
Paintsville (Johnson County) in the 16th district.”
Paintsville High School was accepted into the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) on January 13, 1922 and began play.
Because of the scarcity of newspapers during that time, not all of the games played by either team are known. The only recorded games from that season are from the 16th District Tournament held at Pikeville in early March 1922. The Tigers lost in the tournament finals to Pikeville College Academy. The Comets (the girls team), also coached by Jackson, beat the Pikeville College Academy team and Pikeville High School to win the 16th District title, the first in school history!
From that first season (1921-22) until the 1930-31 season the Paintsville girls basketball team racked up a record of 70 wins and 22 defeats. In the process the girls won six district titles, and made back-to-back appearances in the KHSAA state tournament in 1925 and 1926. In 1925 the Comets lost in the first round to Lawrenceburg, 7-6, in 1926 the ladies made another first round exit as they lost 16-12 to Winchester. However, none of these teams were the best in school history. That recognition belongs to the 1931-32 Paintsville Comets.
The ladies from Paintsville had an excellent coach in J. Earl Walker. On top of his duties as the boys and girls basketball coach, J. Earl Walker also played semi-professional basketball as the player/coach for the Paintsville Globe Trotters. He had been an “all-state” performer at Western Kentucky University under Coach Ed Diddle in 1927 and was described as “one of the best players in these parts” and a “tri-state man, making all-state in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky” by the Pike County News in 1928 (even though he was coaching at Paintsville by this time).
The Comets had high expectations going into the 1931-32 season, on November 26, 1931 the Paintsville Herald reported, “Comet life has been at a fever heat for the past two weeks. Each individual is working hard trying to land a place on the Comet outfit this year. And believe your eyes it will be an accomplishment to play with the Comets this year. They appear to be in good shape for the opener.” The ladies from Paintsville came out on a roll and won every game they played going into the Christmas Break. In fact the Comets only lost once in the regular season, to Boyd County High School, who they later defeated in a rematch, 49-18.
Entering the 58th District Tournament at Paintsville, the Comets had an astonishing record of 18-1. In their first round game the ladies from Paintsville defeated the Belfry Pirates “by a big margin” and in the second round they played Martin for the Class A title. It was a close game early on as the Comets led by two after one quarter, 5-3, but they opened it up after halftime and cruised to a 28-9 victory. In the district finals, Paintsville would face the Class B champions, the Inez Indians. According to the Martin County Herald of March 17, 1932, “The Inez girls and the Paintsville girls played the final game for the championship and what a laugh. The Inez girls had a lot of fun during their visit to Paintsville, winning two straight games. Now to meet Paintsville for a title game.” The Comets cruised to the district tile, defeating the Indians 32-7 and pushing their overall record to 21 wins and 1 defeat.
Unfortunately records do not show who the Comets played in the first two games of the 15th Region Tournament, but we do know that they won those two games to win the region Class A title. In the 15th Region championship game, they would face the Class B winners and their old district foes, the Inez Indians. The game was not as close as the district title game and Paintsville won in a blowout, 48-7. The Comets place three ladies on the all-region team – center Mary Evelyn Howes, forward Irene Davis, and guard Mary Belle Stapleton. The win gave the Comets their third appearance in the Kentucky High School state tournament in the last seven seasons. On March 16, 1932, Coach Earl Walker and the Comets left Paintsville to travel to Lexington for the state tournament. The Paintsville Herald reported, “The girls have only lost one game this season and local fans are expecting them to win at Lexington. Many of the fans will go to Lexington to see the girls play. Just when they play their first game will be known after the drawing Wednesday night.”
In the first round of the 1932 Kentucky State Tournament the Paintsville Comets would face Wheatcroft High School, from Webster County. It was no contest as the ladies from Paintsville won in a rout, 35-1. In the second round the Comets faced Gilbertville High, from Marshall County. Sadly only the score of the game was reported, with Paintsville winning by nine, 22-13. This set up a semi-final appearance against Cloverport High School, from Breckenridge County. Again the game was not reported on, just a score, and Paintsville won in a close one 18-13 to advance to the state championship game against the defending state champions Woodburn High, from Warren County.
The Paintsville Herald reported on the state championship game, “With unlimited fight the Comets took Woodburn by surprise in the first round [quarter] and went on top 9-8. Woodburn regained the lead by one point in the second, increasing it to two points in the third… The Paintsville Comets lost the championship game at Lexington but won the hearts of five thousand basketball fans who packed the big Kentucky Gymnasium. The fighting qualities of the Big Sandy lassies won the admiration of the audience as they exchanged shot for shot with the champion Woodburn girls who won over the Comets by the score of 25-20.”
The paper continued, “Irene Davis and [Mary] Rice led Paintsville in scoring with six each, while Mary Belle Stapelton got five. [Mary] Howes collected three. Miss Howes had two teeth knocked out during the first period, but this did not stop her fighting spirit and she fought through the contest refusing to leave the game. The Paintsville girls were presented with the large silver trophy for being runners-up as well as individual silver basketballs. Throughout the tournament the Comets were the favorites. Newspaper comments lauded the brilliant playing and fighting hearts displayed by the Comets. Such determination to win and gameness displayed was never before witnesses in the University of Kentucky gymnasium.”
Even though the Comets lost the state title game, the people of Paintsville were very proud of the team. Mary Belle Stapelton was named to the all-state team and Irene Davis was named to “Brady Black’s” all-state team. Banquets and parties followed the Comets for the next few weeks with everyone celebrating the accomplishments of the team. The Paintsville High School yearbook from 1932, the Mountain Memorette gave the following recap of the season, “The Comets had a whale of a team during 1931-32 going further than any previous team.” The players and their coach were given some more recognition by the yearbook:
J. E. Walker, Coach
Walker has completed his fifth year as Coach of Paintsville High School. He has been very successful in turning out good teams. He is a product of Western Kentucky State Teachers College.
Irene Davis, Forward
“Rene” was high point girl for the season. She was fast, could fake, and an excellent crip shot. She was chosen as forward on the all-regional team and placed on Brady Black’s all-state team. She will be lost by graduation and her place will be hard to fill.
Mary Martha Rice, Forward
“Marth” was shifted from guard to forward. She played both positions equally well and could play center if called upon. She was fast and a good dribbler. She has one more year with the Comets.
Mary Evelyn Howes, Center
Mary Evelyn completed her third and last year with the Comets. She was rangy and an excellent player under the basket. She never failed to get the tip-off from her taller opponents. She was selected on the all-regional team. Her place will be hard to fill next year.
Mary Belle Stapleton, Guard
“Cicero” joined the Comets last semester and gave a good account of herself, winning positions on the all-regional and all-state teams. She was very fast, a good shot and an excellent defensive player.
Mary Francis Hazelrigg, Guard
Mary Francis was a great defensive player. She played a steady game all through the season. She has one more year to play and much is to be expected of her.
Dorothy Stapleton, Forward
Dorothy broke into several games both a forward and guard. She is a dependable player and has three more years in which to make good.
Helen Davis, Forward
Helen was the midget of the team. She was fast and elusive. Great things are to be expected of her in the two years she has in which to play with the Comets.
Viola Miller, Guard
Viola broke into several games this year and proved to be a good player. She has one more year with the team and we expect her to make good.
Margaret Jenkins, Guard
“Margie”, although only an eighth grader, broke into many games. She showed promise of being a real guard and has four years in which to prove herself a good player.
With a season record of 27 wins and 2 losses the 1931-32 Paintsville Comets are regarded as one of the best teams in Paintsville High School history. With a ten-year record of 97-24, district tiles in 1922, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928 and state tournament appearances in 1925, 1926 and 1932, they were also one of the premier basketball programs of Eastern Kentucky, boys or girls from 1922-1932. It was assumed that the ladies would have an excellent chance of repeating as regional champions in 1933 and get another shot at the state title. However it never came about, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) discontinued the girls state tournament after the 1932 season and didn’t start it up again until 1975. No Paintsville basketball team would make it back to a state tournament until 1985, when the Paintsville boys team led by Mike Minix, Joey Couch, and John Pelphrey played at Rupp Arena. It wouldn’t be until 1996 that a Paintsville basketball team would appear in a state championship game. The Paintsville Comets, now Lady Tigers, have not played in the KHSAA state tournament since the Comets in 1932.