“One of the quiet guys,” is how Jeff Davis described his father as a basketball coach.
Jerry Davis was a sideline staple in the area for years, serving assistant stints at Ashland, Fairview, Russell and Greenup County. Vocal coaches Buddy Biggs and Rex Cooksey allowed Davis to silently slink back into his seat with a writing utensil and clipboard — or a folded sheet of paper — in hand. He was ready when needed.
“I have always been into the preparation more than the game,” Jerry Davis said.
His next game, though, may just trump all the scouting, film-watching and defense-strategizing.
The 64-year-old has been attending the Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena for 35 years, but he’s never coached in one until this Thursday, when South Laurel takes on Christian County at 1:30 p.m.
Jeff Davis, South Laurel’s fifth-year head coach, is a 1996 graduate of Fairview High School.
Jeff asked Jerry to join him at South Laurel four years ago. The Davis duo helped direct South Laurel to three throttlings of opponents in the 13th Region Tournament. The Cardinals crushed Bell County, 56-35, Knox Central, 72-47, and Clay County, 69-43, in Corbin.
“We have a great group of kids,” said Jeff, 37. “It’s been special. We’ve kinda been building for this since I’ve been here. These kids, they care about each other more than themselves.”
Following the 13th Region title game, Cooksey called to congratulate his former player and assistant.
“It’s pretty special having your high school coach call you,” Jeff Davis said. “Rex is one of a kind.”
Cooksey, Jerry Davis and Sam Sparks have shaped Jeff Davis into the coach he is today, he said. He and Jerry both helped Sparks, Russell’s current athletic director, when he was the Red Devils’ sideline leader.
“(Sparks) was very detailed in the way he wanted things,” Jeff said. “From the way you sit on the bench to what you wore to how practices go. To have those three guys help me get into a coaching career, they taught me the ropes. They mean the world to me.”
Jerry said this is Jeff’s moment, while Jeff said he can’t wait to see Jerry’s reaction when the Cardinals grace the cherished Rupp hardwood.
“I kindly stay out of the way,” Jerry said. “But (after the 13th Region championship) he walked down and grabbed me and gave me a big hug. That’s worth all the long days and long nights getting here.”
“It’s unique that you get to work with your dad, when you’re both passionate about the same thing,” Jeff said.
This marks Jeff Davis’ second appearance in the Sweet Sixteen. He assisted coach Steve Dodd when Russell punched its ticket in 2005.
Jeff Davis has also worked under Simon Kenton coach Trent Steiner and Kyle Macy as a staff contributor at Morehead State.
Jerry Davis piloted Ripley, Ohio, to a handful of state regionals during his time as a head coach or assistant there in the 1970s and ‘80s.
A Connersville High School (Indiana) graduate, Jerry Davis moved to Russell in 1990.
He just missed Sweet Sixteen chances at Ashland with Biggs (twice) and once at Fairview with Derek Cooksey, Rex’s son.
“It’s good to get there,” Jerry said. “In Kentucky, that’s the ultimate dream. Now we’ll just see what happens once we get there.”
Biggs Living Large
Mason County’s trip to the Sweet Sixteen has been about as sweet as it gets for both its players and its head coach.
Buddy Biggs will take the Royals to the state tournament almost exactly a calendar year after he was fired at Ashland following the Tomcats’ 5-27 season in 2014-15.
The last Mason County campaign didn’t go as smoothly as expected, either. The Royals were 27-2 entering the 10th Region Tournament, but lost to Harrison County in shocking fashion in the first round of the region, then graduated six of their top seven players.
Biggs and the Royals united for this season, but didn’t initially hit the sweetest notes. Mason County started the season 12-7.
“We’ve had some bumps in the road, so to speak,” Biggs said. “We’ve really finished the year off strong, and I was just ecstatic for them because no one was really expecting us to make a run at the regional title in the preseason, or really, during the season. For them to come together like they did was really special to see and be a part of.”
Mason County then was down late, or big, or both in every one of its five postseason games to date. The Rallyin’ Royals:
•Trailed Bracken County by 12 points in the first half of a 49-43 win in the 39th District semifinals
•Lost to Augusta 63-61 on a buzzer-beating jump shot in the district finals
•Trailed Campbell County by 12 points in the first half of the 10th Region quarterfinals, then were behind the Camels 70-69 before Antwavon “Pig” Williams’ 25-foot jump shot at the horn
•Trailed Paris by 19 points in the first quarter of the region semifinals before winning 67-63
•Trailed Augusta 39-36 with 4 minutes to go in the region finals before winning 48-41
That run lifted the Royals to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010 — an eternity in Maysville.
“Really, despite the tradition here and everything, this year was quote, unquote, supposed to be a down year or a rebuilding year,” Biggs said. “It’s really been fun to be a part of because we took a bunch of guys who were basically freshman and JV players last year and they’ve really meshed well together.
“There were bumps in the road for sure, but they’ve really come together and learned how to play together and grew and matured as a team together. ... They truly are a different team now than they were back in October, November, December. From a coaching standpoint, it’s really been fun to be a part of.”
Is Biggs relishing being in Lexington on a personal level while his former employer’s season ended in the district first round?
Not the case, Biggs said.
“It’s satisfying because we’re taking a group of kids to Rupp Arena who really, really deserve it, and have shown a lot of heart and resiliency over the course of the year,” he said. “As far as personal validation, there’s none. I just love coaching, I love being around young people, and I’m just really thankful that I was given another opportunity to do that by the administration here, and very, very excited to be able to coach here and to move forward.”
Cookin’ up W’s
Josh Cook has earned a reputation as a turnaround artist. In his two seasons at Lawrence County, the Bulldogs were 41-22 after going 7-46 in the two seasons before his arrival there. He also coached an 18-10 June Buchanan squad in 2008-09.
Now Mercer County, in its second season under Cook’s direction, is in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2000 and the first time since the merger of the old Mercer County High School with Harrodsburg in 2006.
The Titans (33-1) spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the state.
“It’s really special for our kids,” Cook said. “We’ve got a really deserving group of kids. They play an unselfish style of basketball, and they’ve worked hard, bought into what we wanted to do. Our kids are really excited to be there, but they’re very hopeful that we’ve still got some work to get finished.”
Cook is glad to see his old charges at Lawrence County in the state tournament as well.
“I’ve kept up with them every game, every step of the way,” Cook said. “Extremely proud of those kids and that school and the coaches. I’m one of their biggest fans. I plan on being one of their biggest fans down at Rupp Arena. I’m extremely happy for those kids and that team.”
As one of five head coaches with ties to northeastern Kentucky — joining Davis, Biggs, Elliott County’s Greg Adkins and Lawrence County’s Travis York — in the state tournament, Cook recognized the area’s relative strength in basketball.
“Those coaches can adjust to different styles of the game, adjust to talent levels that they have,” Cook said of 16th and 15th Region coaches, “and I think those coaches have an open mind to learning and just being able to adjust. I think (that) is the reason they’re successful.”