Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sweet Sixteen (1969)

The 1969 desk is at the fifty-second annual Kentucky State High School Basketball Tournament this weekend, and so are the Sweet Sixteen teams in the latest, exclusive-to-the-HP graphic!

Followers of 1969 know that Louisville Central has been strong all season, but the No. 1 Yellowjackets are joined on the right side of the bracket by No. 2 Clark County, No. 3 Covington Catholic and No. 8 Richmond Madison from the final Associated Press poll of the season. No. 7 Paducah Tilghman is the only member of the AP Top 10 on the left side.

I am rooting for Ohio County, which we followed through the 11th District and Third Region tournaments, and Hopkinsville, which won its first-ever Sweet Sixteen birth this season.

One of the things that really struck me through the last few weeks of my little ongoing 1969 research project is how much larger the Eighth District and Second Region tournaments loomed in the pages of the Kentucky New Era than did Kentucky's and Murray State's runs up to and into the NCAA tournament. 
At the Park City Daily News in Bowling Green in the early 1990s, I felt we gave the high-school tournaments about equal weight to those of the colleges. But that was with WKU in town, and, even still, we caught a tad of flack from folks who weren't natives, didn't have kids in the high schools and/or felt we paid too much attention to the preps. Not distracted with the need to commit staff to cover a local college, the Kentucky New Era in 1969 just totally went full bore on the local district and regional tournaments--relegating the wire stories about the colleges to definitively secondary status, sometimes not even on the sports front. It's a bold editorial judgment that 26-year-old me probably would've resisted; I definitely agree with the decision now. And, for those of us who tend toward an unexplainable, almost supernatural compulsion to revisit time and place in as much specificity as can be today claimed, it's an especially high heap of fun to dig through all of this old Kentucky New Era stuff.

For example, here's a terrific report of the coaches summit that preceded the Eighth District tournament and nailed down details around stuff like ticket prices (reserved chairbacks $5 for whole tournament or $1.50 per session), all-tournament-team voting (coaches vote for eight players but none of their own) and fanfare (no bands or confetti). 

It sounds like things were pretty harmonious among the coaches from Christian County, Dawson Springs, Fort Campbell, Hopkinsville and Todd County during this meeting. Cecil Herndon's equivalent story in advance of the Second Region tournament, however, told of "a somewhat stormy business session" with a flap around ticket revenues. "Failing to reach a decision in the open meeting, the issue was tabled and settled in a special meeting behind closed doors with only the school principals present. Over the reported opposition of both local schools, the matter was settled with the following agreement." Then Herndon went on to detail a convoluted scheme of pricing tiers having to do with whether the purchaser is a student or school staff member, when the ticket is bought and the type of seating sought. "In short, no adult tickets may be bought in advance," Herndon chase-cut.)

The Kentucky New Era printed excited briefs about "the most comprehensive printed program ever offered" and "a special Sportsmanship Award ... selected on the basis of overall conduct in regard to competitiveness, courtesy and fair play."

 Once the actual game action was underway, the New Era (along with WHOP and at least one other radio station) were right there at courtside. 

Per a Page 2 police brief, an 18-year-old "star basketball player" for Hopkinsville was arrested at 4:30 in the morning on the day that the district tournament started. He was reportedly apprehended while driving a minister's car, which the minister had reported stolen from the Hopkinsville College of the Bible between 7 and 9 the previous night. The student was being held on bond of more than $500 on charges of possession of stolen property and driving without a license.

And yet, even without their star, ...

So it was on to the regional--right back at Hopkinsville High's gym--for the Tigers, Christian County, Earlington (the Litkenhous Second Region favorite), Lyon County, Nortonville South Hopkins, Trigg County, Union County (the AP-poll fave) and Webster County. Cecil Herndon's March 11 tournament preview in the New Era was headlined, "Outbreak of 'basketballitis' rages in Second Region area."

The defending Second Region champ, Christian County, blazed to a 17-8 advantage in its tournament opener, making all seven of its field goals in the first period. But it was Union County that prevailed in overtime, 63-61. The Braves next outlasted the only team to ever come out of the Second Region and win a state championship, Earlington, 78-76. Meanwhile, on the other side of the regional bracket, Webster County powered by Trigg County, 53-50, and home-standing Hoptown edged the South Hopkins Tomcats, 61-57. And, then, Hoptown dispatched Webster, 70-64. 

Cecil Herndon's New Era column on the Union-Hoptown championship was headlined, "They did it!":

Who will ever forget it?

After, lo, these many years, the Hopkinsville High School Tigers are the undisputed kings of basketball in the Second Region.

And who can ever forget the way they did it?

After playing an almost flawless first half against the big, tough Union County Braves, the Tigers saw their lead evaporate in the third quarter.

They regained a narrow margin momentarily, only to see it go down the drain before the relentless pressure of the well-disciplined Braves.

When Union took the lead for the last time in the final critical stages, few in the gym would have given the staggering Tigers a prayer.

How easy it would have been for a team with one ounce less of heart to fold and forever kid itself into thinking it had given it all it had.

Not so the Tigers.

Tiger Captain Wendell Lynch, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, stepped to the free throw line and tied the ball game with only seconds remaining.

When Union failed on its trip down the floor, big Richard Decker--a tower of strength on the boards during the entire tournament--tipped in a missed Tiger shot for the winning basket. ...

They were, and are, everyone heros.

And, so, days off were granted, and pep was rallied. ("Mayor Alfred Naff presented each player a symbolic key to the city in the form of tie-clasps," reported Cecil Herndon, without noting whether the star who allegedly stole the minister's car got a key, too.) Buses were arranged, and congratulations were editorialized. It was on to the Sweet Sixteen for Hoptown, for the very first time.*

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