For a Kentucky high school basketball coach, little can rival the thrill of winning back-to-back region championships and following them up with State Tournament runner-up and quarterfinal finishes.
Except, of course, sharing those experiences with a son who contributed significantly on the court.
That’s the story of Rowan County’s Shawn and Tyler Thacker. Here’s the topper, they still have two more seasons together.
Tyler, who grew up with a basketball in his hands, is only beginning his junior year.
“There are pictures when I was 2 years old with a ball in my hands,” he said. “I always pictured myself playing in the state championship at Rupp (Arena). It’s crazy how that became a reality.”
And not something he has taken for granted.
“I’ve been truly blessed to be on good teams, play with guys like Adam (Wing), D.J. (Townsend) and Jason Egan, and go to the state finals and Elite Eight,” Tyler said. “And I get two more shots at it, I guess.”
It’s a transition season for the Vikings, who graduated their heralded trio along with key back-up Phillip Hodge.
Tyler Thacker, the star of Rowan County’s Sweet Sixteen-opening win over North Laurel last season, joins a handful of other capable returners as the team tries to make another run in the 16th Region.
“Some leadership has to go his way,” Shawn Thacker said of the 6-foot-2 guard. “Any time you graduate a natural-born leader like Adam Wing, one person can not carry that load, but collectively we can. He can’t lead like Adam, but he can like Tyler.”
How much will the program’s success the past two years help?
“It’s hard to tell,” said the Vikings’ fifth-year head coach. “We will see as we go through the season. I think they understand what it takes. That experience is invaluable. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win a region title, but it puts us in the mix of that conversation.”
From an early age, Tyler wanted to go to the gym with his dad, who guided Somerset to three All “A” state runner-up trophies and eight consecutive All “A” region titles in nine years before leaving for Rowan County. He has been selected for the 12th Region Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Tyler grew up loving basketball,” Shawn said. “He would throw a fit on his mom when he couldn’t go to practice or a game.”
Tyler played AAU basketball as a first-grader and continued to gain experience in the Somerset Futures program. One summer, he competed for two different age-group teams at the same AAU state tournament.
“He’s been around basketball his whole life and played in tournaments all over the country,” Shawn said.
Tyler has battled through sickness and injuries during his varsity career, which began as an eighth-grader at Rowan County.
“He came up, and was playing well for us,” Shawn Thacker said. “He was on the verge of starting when he developed mono and had to get his tonsils out. It was about his third bout with mono.”
As a freshman, Tyler came off the bench and helped the Vikings to a 30-win season that ended with an overtime loss to Christian County in the state championship game.
He began last season as a starter, then came off the bench while dealing with a torn labrum in his shooting shoulder. Tyler made a key blocked shot late in the regional finals against Ashland as Rowan County held on for a 59-56 win.
Aided by an adjustment to his shoulder brace, the left-hander went on a scoring spree against North Laurel at the State Tournament. He scored a career-high 25 points to pave the way for a 64-46 victory. Thacker shot 4-for-6 from 3-point range while some of Rowan’s starters struggled from beyond the arc.
“All through practice I told everyone how I was finally getting used to the brace,” he said. “Going in, my confidence was probably the highest it had been all season long. I had some great looks at the basket, and my teammates found me. When you are feeling it, it becomes an easy game.”
That performance is etched in the memories of player and father/coach.
“It was a special day for sure,” Shawn Thacker said. “To be on that stage, and have a lot of people in Rupp Arena that you know, it’s something that will always stay with you. If Tyler doesn’t step up and play that way, you don’t know what happens. He allowed us to build a lead, and win it.”
Tyler collected nine points, three rebounds, two assists, a steal and blocked shot in the Vikings’ quarterfinal loss to Southwestern, ending a 26-8 season for Rowan County.
“I don’t think there’s another person I would rather play for than my dad,” Tyler said. “We have a good relationship. We fight a little bit, but he listens to me and I listen to him. I had to be that guy, a good basketball player and not let him down.”
During the offseason, Tyler played AAU ball on two different teams, including several players from the 16th Region. But the shoulder problem worsened and he eventually had surgery in late August.
“We originally thought he would miss a big chunk of December games, but Tyler has done a good job with rehab and stayed ahead of pace all the way through,” Shawn Thacker said.
Tyler led Rowan County with 15 points in a recent scrimmage against Danville.
“I hope to stay injury-free all season,” he said. “With it repaired, I feel more comfortable playing with a healthy shoulder and healthy body.”
Thacker offers versatility on the perimeter and will be counted upon as both a scorer and distributor.
“My main goal is 10 (points) and 10 assists),” he said. “If I’m doing that, I think we can be dangerous, especially at the end of the year.”
Rated as a Top 10 player in the region now, Tyler is looking forward to the next chapter in his high school career.
“I’m stepping into a major role with our team,” he said. “I have to prove that I am a Top 10 player in this region.”
Rowan County’s scheduled opener Tuesday at Fairview has been cancelled because the Eagles are headed to the Class A state football finals. Rowan will play in the Eastern Kentucky Conference Tournament on Saturday.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2671.