From The Sidelines: If this was a dream, let me sleep a little longer

Published 4:59 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

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By John Henson

Contributing Sports Writer

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Like finding yourself in an episode from the Twilight Zone, I started to wonder this week if what I was watching happen at Rupp Arena could really be happening.

It finally became clear Saturday evening around 9 that this wasn’t a dream. If it was, the Harlan County Black Bears would have certainly won a state championship.

As Harlan County guard Trent Noah said after Saturday’s semifinal win over Evangel Christian — “We’re in the state championship. That’s just crazy to say,”

I felt the same way so many times from Wednesday to Saturday. Could this really be happening, finally, after exactly 40 years of watching and covering the state tournament.

As a kid growing up in Browning Acres as a sports fan of epic proportions, one of my favorite fantasies was hoping this could be the year the Cawood Trojans would play in the state tournament. The Trojans finished second four times — 1976, 1981, 1983 and 1986. I can tell you the sad story for each of them if you ever have the time. The Trojans didn’t just lose. They lost in the most painful of ways. If you were at Knox Central in 1983 or Middlesboro in 1986, you probably know what I mean.

Watchiing those great Harlan teams of the 1990s made my job as a writer with the Harlan Daily Enterprise a lot of fun, and I was able to see several of the all-time great players in Harlan County era during that time under the direction of Mike Jones, who will always be my favorite coach. While that was impressive and historic, it wasn’t quite the same as seeing your school get there.

Jones took the job at Harlan County in 2008 and led the Bears to the regional finals in 2013, only to fall to Clay County, the same team that knocked out Cawood in the finals three times. Harlan County finally broke the drought in 2017 under Jones’ son, Michael, but the Bears fell in the first round to Scott. I had started to wonder if that might be the only time for the school that had now become my home as a teacher.

After a great regular season last year, the Bears lost to Corbin in the first round of the regional tournament, but with Trent Noah and Maddox Huff and company coming back this year the chances were good that HCHS would be in the race again. With Jones’ younger son, Kyle, now in charge, the Bears played what was likely the toughest schedule in county history. After winning 26 games in the regular season, the Bears rolled past Middlesboro and Bell County in the district tournament and then had to run a gauntlet of their toughest regional opponents to make it to Rupp Arena. They did just that with hard-fought wins over South Laurel, Clay County and Corbin to capture the program’s second 13th Region title.

Just winning a game at the state tournament was quite an accomplishment and their victory over Warren Central on Thursday became the first for a county team since 1996 and the first for an HCHS team in school history. I could have gone home happy after that one.

The run looked like it was over as Campbell County built a 16-point lead in the quarterfinals on Friday, but Noah led an epic comeback. Noah’s 48-point performance made me start to think this was just too great to be true.

A win Saturday afternoon over Evangel Christian sent the Bears to the state finals, becoming the first team since Wah Wah Jones and the Dragons in 1944. That’s the World War II years if you don’t follow history. It was a long, long time ago, even before I started covering basketball.

The crazy ride was going to end either way Saturday with HCHS finishing as state champion or state runner up. The game was tied three times in the fourth quarter before Lyon County pulled away by executing almost perfectly down the stretch with a senior-dominated squad that had lost in the two previous state tournaments.

It’s hard to muster up a lot of disappointment even if the Bears were THAT close to a state championship. They still go down in history as state runner up in that KHSAA list that goes back to the 1930s showing the state champ and runner up each year.

At 61 now, it’s a little unsettling to know what you’re watching in front of you is the apex of a 40-year sports writing career and probably still will be if that career lasts 50, or even 60 years. It was a wild and memorable ride, and all I can think to do is thank coach Kyle Jones and his staff and the 2024 Black Bears for bringing Harlan County together at Rupp Arena for the most fun and most crazy three days of sports I’ve seen.