BUCKHORN — Shortly after the final buzzer sounded in the boys’ 14th Region Basketball Tournament, Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio tweeted, “A team with multiple players with mullets and a coach who is a part-time pro wrestler is going to the Sweet 16. I love you, Buckhorn!”
The official quote from Jones needs to have a heart emoji in place of the word “love,” but the meaning is the same nonetheless. Whether the sentiment is delivered with words or emojis, it is a big deal in Kentucky sports when Matt Jones posts a tweet singing your praises.
The Buckhorn Wildcats won the 14th Region championship on March 8, with an exciting overtime victory against Perry County Central High School. Both teams played inspiring basketball. In essence, Perry County was a winner regardless of the final score. However, for citizens of the communities within the Buckhorn School District, the basketball team’s trip to the Sweet 16 is about more than simply winning a game.
Buckhorn Wildcats are a close-knit group, from those who are high school seniors all the way through the ones who are senior citizens. In times of tragedy, they suffer together. In times of triumph, they celebrate as one. The Buckhorn School community has experienced more than their fair share of heartbreak over the past several years. The Wildcats’ unexpected championship run through the 2016 regional tournament provided a moment for all of those mending hearts in the community to fill with warmth.
“This is really special for our community,” said Buckhorn mayor Pat Wooton the day after the game, “And it is special for the county as a whole, really. Those kids worked hard and they are really good kids. And John Noble is a great coach.”
The city of Buckhorn is home to approximately 150 residents. In terms of enrollment, Buckhorn High School hosts about one fourth the number of students in comparisson to the average for 14th Region schools as a whole. For a school that small, competing among the final 16 basketball teams left standing in the entire state is a large feat. But Buckhorn School is no stranger to achieving excellence despite its numbers. The list of professionals who once attended Buckhorn School includes former leaders in government and the president of a university. In fact, this will not be Buckhorn’s first trip to the Sweet 16. The boys’ basketball team won the 14th Region title, not once, but twice in a row, during the 1988 and 1989 tournament seasons, under former head coach John Paul Amis. But for now, the 2016 championship is the talk of the town and the school’s crowning achievement.
“Honestly, it is hard to put into words what all of us are feeling right now,” said Jalen Cooper following Buckhorn’s win, “In our little corner of the world, Buckhorn basketball is a centerpiece of sorts, something we can rally around in a positive manner. For this team to overcome the adversity they have faced through the years and bring this championship back home means so much, going far beyond the game itself. From the athletes to the coaches to the fans and everyone else in-between, we are truly a family and simply could not be prouder.”
The 2016 Buckhorn team has not only carried the burden of adversity on its back. The team has carried the honoring of spirit with it as well. In 2009, Cameron Hoskins tragically lost his life at the age of 12. Cameron loved the game of basketball, but never had the chance to attend high school and adorn the Wildcats jersey. To say the community mourned the loss of Cameron Hoskins is an understatement. From the day of his death on, the entire community has harbored his spirit in their hearts. Cameron’s brother, Connor Hoskins, won M.V.P. of the 14th Region Tournament, after scoring 20 points in the championship game. Scott Blank tragically lost his life at a tender age too. In Blank’s time as a Wildcat, he left an everlasting impact on, not only his classmates, but also on his community and the Buckhorn athletics program as a whole.
It is almost as if Buckhorn had seven players on the floor during their championship run; five high school athletes and two spirits. Together, along with the cheers of the community, they turned impossible odds into an inevitable victory and captivated the masses. Perry County Schools Superintendent Jonathan Jett had this to say on Facebook.
“Congratulations to the Buckhorn Wildcats and Coach John Noble, 14th Region Champs!”
Buckhorn will play Murray, Wednesday, March 16 at 12:00 p.m. in Rupp Arena, as the opening game of the state tournament. If the name Murray sounds familiar, it should. Murray is the team another local band of small-school heroes defeated to win this year’s “All A Classic” State Tournament. That team was, of course, the Cordia Lions.
Those wishing to support the Wildcats can do so by attending the game and cheering them on. However, the Buckhorn High School Boys’ Basketball Team will also be hosting a pancake breakfast Saturday, March 12 at Coal River Grill beginning at 9:00 a.m., for anyone who wants to show support while also enjoying a delicious breakfast. The team appreciates all the encouragement they receive, as is proven by the post Coach John Noble made on Facebook the day after his Wildcats won the regional championship.
“I just wanted to take a moment and thank all of you that have taken the time out of your lives to support our men. These last 24 hours have been a whirlwind and I wish I had time to thank each individual one of you that has texted, emailed, messaged, called, Facebooked or spoken to me with your congratulations, but the sheer volume of messages has made that a nearly impossible task, but I have been trying. Without a doubt, this season has been filled with ups and downs and there were times that these men could have laid down and quit, especially when the majority of the general public had written us off. However, even through the hard times, these guys kept pressing on and did the work every day. Your support was a driving factor in that and we appreciate it. Without a doubt, last night’s game was one of the best games that I have ever been involved with. Perry Central is a first class team, and as I’ve told many people, Shannon Hoskins has done one of the best coaching jobs this year that I have seen in my 20 years as a coach and they have a lot to be proud of. Even after their loss, their coaches and players treated us with the utmost respect and we all appreciate that. With that said, 27 years is a long time to wait for something and I am so honored to be a part of bringing a regional title back to our school and community, who have been so loyal and so patient with us for so long. Speaking on behalf of all of our men, present and past, and our coaching staff, Tim Miller, Corey Hoskins, Chuck Hyden and Caleb Estep, we love you and appreciate you and look forward to seeing all of you in Rupp next Wednesday at 12:00.”
So, Matt Jones, the people of Buckhorn are extremely honored to have your love, as they should be. But as you can clearly see, this year’s Buckhorn Wildcats team is cool for more than merely rocking the mullet, and their coach is fascinating for far more reasons than his ability to dropkick muscle-men from off of the top turnbuckle. In fact, this year’s Buckhorn Wildcats team might very well be the epitome of cool. No matter how well they do in the Sweet 16, they have made the people and the spirits of their community proud.
Read the Sports section of this week’s newspaper for Hazard Herald sports reporter Tony McGuire’s article on the Boys’ 14th Region Championship Game.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.