PAINTSVILLE — Located in the same town, just a mile apart, Paintsville High and Johnson Central High Schools have one of the fiercest basketball rivalries in Eastern Kentucky.
Over the years there have been notable players that have played for both teams, even coaches that have worked at both schools.
Orville Hamilton, superintendent of the Johnson County School system in the 1990s, was a star athlete at Paintsville in 1959 after moving into town from Point Pleasant, W.Va. Hamilton played basketball well enough at Paintsville to earn a scholarship to play Division I basketball at Eastern Kentucky University.
In fact, Johnson Central’s first basketball coach, Paul Williams has close ties to both schools. Williams played basketball at Paintsville in the late 1950s eventually becoming a coach at Oil Springs High School. After his time at Johnson Central he later coached basketball at Paintsville, having a young assistant named Bill Mike Runyon on his staff.
Williams was principal of Paintsville Elementary School while he son, Bart, was a star basketball player at Johnson Central in the late 1980s. Mr. Williams later became the superintendant of the Paintsville City Schools and was there when the Tigers won their state championship in 1996. With such an interesting and complicated history, a look at the overall basketball series between the two schools needs a discussion.
In the early 1960s talk began about consolidating the four county high schools (Oil Springs, Flat Gap, Meade Memorial, and Van Lear) in Johnson County into one, larger school. It was agreed to do this by a vote in 1965 and Johnson Central opened its doors as a school in 1968. Many people believed that once the county schools were consolidated into Johnson Central, competing with its athletic teams would be very tough for the Paintsville Tigers. At first it was, especially in basketball.
Johnson Central won the first six games it played against Paintsville, including a 111-73 drubbing in the 1970-71 season. Paintsville almost pulled off its first win in a 80-79 loss during the 1971-72 season, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
However, during the 1973-74 season, Paintsville would pick up its first two wins against the Golden Eagles. The first win Paintsville ever had against Johnson Central occurred on January 29, 1974.
The Paintsville Herald reported, “For the first time in the five-year rivalry between Paintsville and Johnson Central, the Tigers took a win… and did it on Central’s home court. The game was as it should have been, close all the way.” Paintsville was led by senior Bill Ward who had 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists, senior Bill Mike Runyon also helped the Tiger cause with 16 points and 5 rebounds. The Tigers finished the 1973-74 regular season with an unimpressive 11-13 record and would meet Johnson Central in the semifinals of the 57th District Tournament at Paintsville. The Golden Eagles had advanced in the tournament by demolishing Salyersville 117-76 in the opening round, setting a district tournament scoring record. The Eagles were looking to avenge their defeat to the Tigers from earlier in the season.
It was a close game, just like the first match-up of the season between the two rivals. Both teams were tied at 47 going into the last quarter, before Bill Mike Runyon caught fire. Runyon scored 16 of the Tigers 31 points in the final frame, while Johnson Central could only manage to score 18 and the Tigers pulled off another shocking win against the Eagles, 78-65. Runyon led the way for Paintsville, scoring 36 points, Bill Ward was the only other player from Paintsville in double figures as he had 11 points and 17 rebounds. According to the Paintsville Herald, “At the horn, the floor became a bedlam of Tiger supporters celebrating the win as if it was the title. But the crowd finally cleared and the Tigers went home to prepare for the real title match, with Louisa.” Paintsville went on to win the district title that year, but lost to Pikeville in the 15th Region championship game.
Johnson Central regained their dominance over Paintsville following the Tigers district win in 1974, winning twenty-one of the next twenty-four games between the two schools. As the 1985 57th District Tournament began, Johnson Central held a sizeable all-time series lead over the Paintsville Tigers. The Eagles had won 27 games since 1968, the Tigers had won only 5! In the first round of the 1985 57th District Tournament the Tigers met the Magoffin County Hornets and won in a squeaker, 40-37. The win over the Hornets advanced the Tigers into the 57th District championship game against cross-town rivals Johnson Central, a team that had beaten Paintsville in three meetings during the season and a team the Tigers hadn’t beaten since 1981.
During the championship game the Tigers took an early 11-8 lead, but were stymied by the Johnson Central Golden Eagles in the second quarter, being outscored 19-12, and finding themselves down at halftime 32-30. The Eagles went up by six in the third quarter, but were unable to push their lead any higher. “I thought the turning point was when they got up by six and we were able to come back,” Coach Runyon recalled.
“If they had gotten up to eight or ten, it might have been too much for us to come back from.” The Tigers were able to keep the game close and take their first lead of the second half, 46-44, with four minutes to play in the game. With their tough defense, the Tigers were able to increase their lead to nine, and they cruised to a ten-point victory. The win gave Paintsville their first district championship in eleven years (1974) and their first twenty-win season since 1964.
After the game Coach Runyon stated, “I felt the law of averages caught up with us. It feels great. They [JCHS] had beaten us something like nine straight [JCHS had actually won 11 straight].” The Tigers were led in scoring by the “Big Three” – all of whom were sophomores. Mike Minix had a then career-high of 28 points and four assists, Joey Couch had 16 points and five rebounds, and John Pelphrey had 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Paintsville moved on to the 15th Region Tournament at Sheldon Clark, where they would take on the Pikeville Panthers in the opening round.
Paintsville won their first two games in the 15th Region Tournament to advance to the championship game. In the finals, the Tigers would once again face district foe Johnson Central, who was looking for revenge after their defeat in the district championship game. Paintsville scored the first two points of the 15th Region championship game and never looked back, as they used “tenacious defense” to defeat the Johnson Central Golden Eagles 65-52. Johnson Central never led in the game and was down by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter. As the clock wound down the Paintsville fans could not resist the urge to remind Johnson Central that the Tigers had gotten revenge for their three regular season losses to the Eagles during the post season by chanting, “You won three, we won two, we’re headed to Rupp where are you?”
The Tigers were red hot from the field hitting 24 of 37 shots (65%) and limiting the Eagles to 41% shooting with their zone defense. The “Big Three” once again haunted Johnson Central as John Pelphrey finished the game with 23 points, Mike Minix scored 16, and the big-bruiser Joey Couch had 12. After the game Coach Runyon struggled to find words to express his emotions, “I don’t know if I can say anything. These kids deserve this win. They did everything you could ask of them. This is a dream come true.” Coach Runyon also exercised some past demons with the win, “I thought about my senior year during the game. I wanted to win the region more than anything because I didn’t do it as a player. It couldn’t have felt any better as a player than it did as a coach.” Praise was also given to the Tigers by Johnson Central Coach Mike Castle. “Paintsville played great defense. They showed us what the game was about tonight.”
After defeating Johnson Central in the 1985 district and regional championship games, Paintsville went on to win eight straight against the Golden Eagles including a win in the 1986 57th District championship game. The Tigers then lost three of four games against Johnson Central during the 1987-88 season, including a first round loss in the 1988 57th District Tournament. The rivalry was balanced during the next three seasons, with neither team gaining an advantage on the other. However, from the beginning of the 1991 season until December of 1992, Johnson Central had won four straight against Paintsville. It was the last win against the Tigers, on December 8, 1992 that changed the rivalry.
Johnson Central played an excellent game, outscoring Paintsville 23-10 in the 3rd quarter while shooting 90% in that frame on route to a 77-67 win. It was the first win of the season for Johnson Central and the Paintsville Tigers fell to a 2-4 overall record. But it was not what happened in the game that made a big splash in the newspapers, it was what was said after by Johnson Central’s first year head coach Larry Sturgill. Underneath the headline of the sports page of the Paintsville Herald ran the following quote by Coach Sturgill, “This lets Paintsville know they’ve won their last game against the Eagles.”
For whatever reason, the quote surprised and angered many of the Paintsville basketball players. It was bulletin board material for weeks after the game. As a 7th Grader at the time, I can remember myself and the some of the other junior high players, cutting out the quote and taping it to the inside of our lockers at school. To us it was the first time we had been really introduced to the Paintsville/Johnson Central rivalry. The quote woke up the Paintsville players, young and old, and Paintsville began a run against the Golden Eagles.
From that last loss against Johnson Central (December 8, 1992), Paintsville proceeded to win the next seventeen games against the Golden Eagles. Those wins included a district championship game in 1994 and first round district games in 1995, 1997 and 1998. Some of Paintsville’s largest margins of victory against Johnson Central came during this run and it all began after a quote in the Paintsville Herald in December 1992.
Johnson Central got back on the winning track against the Tigers in the 1998-99 season. After losing to Paintsville twice in the regular season, the Golden Eagles beat Paintsville in the first round of the 1999 57th District Tournament and again in the same round the next season. After that the rivalry continued, with neither side gaining a clear advantage in the years since Paintsville won seventeen in-a-row. As it stands now, after the 2012-13 season, in which Johnson Central won all three match-ups and eliminated the Tigers from the 57th District Tournament, Paintsville holds a slight advantage in the series. The two cross-town rivals have played 113 times, Paintsville has won 58, Johnson Central has won 55.