Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

March 18, 2012

A Comeback Spirit

Morgan County sports programs looking to rebound after tornadoes

WEST LIBERTY — It's the not knowing what do to next that weighs on Morgan County football coach Brian Turner the most.

The March 2 tornado mostly wiped out West Liberty and sections of Morgan County and is blamed for six deaths – five in the county and one in the city. Among the school's teams, football lost the most – everything from the lights, scoreboard and press box to uniforms, helmets, pads and practice gear is gone.

“We're still in the process of trying to simply grasp everything, trying to inventory what all totally has been lost,” Turner said Friday. “And every time you think you've thought of everything, you remember more things.”

Turner is grateful that as far as he knows, the tornado displaced none of his players, though many students had to live in shelters, but he faces a conundrum – how to raise the nearly $6 million to replace the football facilities while countless others lost everything, and classes at the heavily-damaged West Liberty Elementary School had to be moved to the old Boneal factory on U.S. 460 between Morgan and Menifee counties.

“In the grand scheme of things, football's kind of small compared to losing your complete town,” Turner said. “... You don't want to sound like you're begging, but we're going to need a lot of money.”

One thing is certain: Morgan County's 2012 football season will all be on the road. Athletic Director Ralph Hamilton said Friday he's working with several schools he did not name to play some games as the home team.

Turner said no contact has been made with Morgan County's opponents or the Kentucky High School Athletic Association about potential scheduling conflicts, but he did not anticipate any problems.

Feeling helpless

When the tornado struck West Liberty, Turner was at his home nearly four miles northwest of town on Ky. 519. Normally, when a storm hits, he loses at least his satellite television signal, but he didn't on March 2.

Then, he saw the report of a confirmed funnel cloud directly hitting West Liberty.

“Within 10 minutes of this occurring, you start trying to reach out,” Turner said. “It's almost a feeling of helplessness; it's kind of like, you want to panic, you want to run out and do something, and then word comes out, they don't want people in West Liberty, that they're trying to contain the situation.”

Morgan County finished 8-3 last year, including a runner-up finish behind Breathitt County in their Class 3A district. Turner said some 40 players participated in off-season weightlifting and had planned to compete in a powerlifting meet March 3 in Raceland.

Instead, Turner talked with his team. “It's going to be a very emotional year,” he said. “I think we'll have a very good football team. We had a lot of expectations.”

There was the obvious devastation at the football complex. After rain and snow on the days after the twister, what wasn't blown away had a thick, crusty coating.

Then there was the field itself.

“There's a ton of debris embedded in the field,” Turner said. “The debris's so deeply embedded, the glass and metal … we would have to remove up to 18 inches of ground and haul it off and replace it to ever play there again.”

Turner said the school has talked to various colleges, and Morgan County native Jamie Easterling, a brother of Morgan County baseball coach Mark Easterling, has reached out to his connections with the Cincinnati Bengals and other National Football League teams. He said there's even the possibility of University of Kentucky head football c3oach Joker Phillips meeting with the team within the next two weeks.

Turner said his faith is stronger (he's been an ordained minister since 1993) thanks to what he calls “a spirit here in West Liberty that we're going to try to come back.”

If Phillips comes, Turner plans to ask him to talk to UK men's basketball coach John Calipari about holding a telethon similar to one that raised nearly $1.2 million for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquakes.

“We don't want people to forget about us,” Turner said. “We're going to need a lot of help, but I think we're going to show our strength as a people, and we'll do a lot to help ourselves.”

Spring sports

starting

Spring sports are faring better. Morgan County superintendent Deatrah Barnett said last week the tornadoes did not affect the baseball and softball fields on Liberty Road, about three miles north of the high school. She said the track just needs to be cleaned up.

“Our intent is to restore everything as quickly as possible,” Barnett said last week.

The softball team opens its season at home at 6 p.m. Monday against Breathitt County, while the baseball team is scheduled to open at either 5:30 p.m. Monday against Lee County or 5:30 p.m. Thursday versus Menifee County.

Barnett said the tornado destroyed the tennis courts. All matches will be on the road, but Hamilton said employees at The Wells Group, a ready-mix concrete company near West Liberty, are letting players practice on courts at their homes.

Softball coach Darrell Bradley will never forget what happened on March 10, when the Green County team brought an 18-wheeler about 200 miles from Greensburg and spent the day unloading it. He thought Dragons coach Jeff Walker and 15 of his 21 players had a much smaller load.

“(There was) everything you could think of,” Bradley said. “Water, clothes, rakes, just different things, cleaning supplies. I mean, they brought everything in the world.”

Walker was 10 years old, and he remembers going to Brandenburg, Ky. after the April 3, 1974 F5 tornado wiped out the town and killed 31. He and his wife Julie watched the Weather Channel reports of the Morgan County storm.

When Walker and his team saw what had happened to West Liberty, he didn't think he'd have had the will to carry on if a twister hit Green County, and he admires Bradley for having a sense of humor despite losing everything.

“And when he talked to our girls and everything, (Bradley) got emotional,” Walker said. “There wasn't a dry eye in the house, including my girl and my parents.”

Green County's players had gold t-shirts made with the slogan, “Green County-Morgan County From Our Field to Yours” on the front. Bradley hopes his team remembers that softball is just a game, and the sacrifice a team from Greensburg made.

“Surprised? You could say that again,” Bradley said. “It was a blessing and a half. I've coached softball for four decades, and it was an honor for them to do it.”

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