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Hilton makes history at girls Sweet 16

While most will likely remember 2020 for the coronavirus pandemic that seems to be gripping the planet, Harlan County High School teacher Jennifer Hilton will recall it as the year she called her first game as an official at Rupp Arena during the girls state tournament.

Hilton, one of the top officials in the 13th Region for the past two decades, earned her fourth trip to the girls state tournament this season, but it was the first for her at Rupp Arena, one of the premier baskets venues in the nation. She made history during the tournament as a member of the first all-female crew, joining Michelle Gardner and Hannah Reynolds for the Letcher Central-Ryle game in the first round last Wednesday.

The tournament was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak after South Laurel’s win over Sacred Heart in the fifth first-round game on Thursday, so Hilton was only able to call one game in this year’s tourney, but it’s not an experience she will soon forget.

“When I grew up, the girls state tournament was never at Rupp Arena. I don’t know if I ever dreamed of working at Rupp Arena, but when they moved It I did think it would be pretty cool,” Hilton said. “That was a dream come true. It was a great experience for the short time it lasted. I’d just to like to go back and finish the thing some time. I’d like to keep going and remain good enough to go and be considered. I love the sport and being part of it.”

Being a member of the first all-female crew made the experience even more special.

“I feel like I’m part of the answer to a trivia question now,” Hilton said with a laugh.

Sports have always been part of Hilton’s life. By the time she was born in 1978, her father, Dudley was a well-known coach at Breathitt County High School. He eventually reached legendary status after two state championships at Bell County (1991 and 2008) and one at Bourbon County (1997). Back for his third stint at Bell County, Hilton led the Bobcats to a state runner-up finish last year and ranks near the top in all-time wins for Kentucky coaches. Growing up around the game pushed Hilton into sports at a young age.

“I was around it all the time. I didn’t have a choice. It’s just the way I grew up — on a football field and in a locker room and on a bus,” Hilton said of her childhood.

When her father took over as coach at Bell County, Hilton was ready for kindergarten and started school at Blackmont, near the Harlan County line, where her mother, Jan, was a teacher. As you might expect with her background, Hilton developed a passion for sports and was a basketball and softball standout when she arrived at Bell County High School in the fall of 1993. She was a senior point guard on the Lady Cats’ 25-3 squad in 1997. Hilton earned all-conference and honorable mention all-state honors for basketball, setting a school record with 240 assists as a senior. The Lady Cats were a 13th Region favorite that season, but they were upset by Whitley County in the regional tournament and Bell was denied its first girls regional title.

After completing her playing career at Alice Lloyd, Hilton served one season as a graduate assistant and began her officiating career with junior varsity games in the 14th Region. She worked for a couple of years in central Kentucky while her father was leading Bourbon County to a state 3A title and called games in the 10th and 11th regions during that time.

Hilton started officiating in the 13th Region when she arrived at Cumberland High School in 2005 as a science teacher. She stayed there the last three years that the school was open, then moved to James A. Cawood for one year, then into a position as a home hospital teacher for two years before beginning her current job in science at Harlan County High School. Hilton’s officiating career took off at that point as she earned assignments in the girls state tournament at Bowling Green in 2009, 2010 and 2011. She called the championship games in both 2010 and 2011.

After losing 40 pounds since the previous season due to a strict workout regime, Hilton says she was at the top of her game going into the 2020 season.

“I feel better today than I have in a long time,” she said. “I worked really hard to get back into better shape.”

Hilton also calls quite a few boys games, including the 14th Region Tournament two years ago and this year’s 50th District Tournament championship game. She also worked this year’s 2A State Tournament in Owensboro.

While she is now recognized as one of the region’s top officials and has earned the respect of coaches, she can still be a target for student sections as the only female calling games in the 13th.

“I was told at Jackson County to go back to the kitchen by the student section,” Hilton said, before smiling at the memory.

One constant during her officiating career has been the support of her parents, including her coaching father.

“It was something for me to be able to leave my dad tickets at Rupp Arena,” Hilton said. “That was something special because for 40 years he took me to Rupp Arena and to state championship football games. I was able to take him and mom this year as my guests. That was a great experience.”