Edmonson County’s 40th anniversary of Cinderella title

February 2, 2016 FieldsColumn

Edmonson County's 1976 state basketball champions are marking their 40th anniversary this season. Front row, left to right, Jimmy Cole, Ricky Houchin, Kevin Clemmons. Back row, left to right, Phil Rich, Aaron Goad, Chester Bethel, Tim Ashley, Mark Hennion, Jeff Doyle and Larry Starnes???

Edmonson County’s 1976 state basketball champs are marking their 40th anniversary this season. Front row, left to right, Jimmy Cole, Ricky Houchin, Kevin Clemmons. Back row, l-r, Phil Rich, Aaron Goad, Chester Bethel, Tim Ashley, Mark Hennion, Jeff Doyle and Larry Starnes.

BY MIKE FIELDS

BROWNSVILLE – They’re on the shady side of middle age now. Most of them have gray hair, or gray-flecked goatees or mustaches. Their knees don’t always treat them kindly. Some are retired. One has three grandsons.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since the Edmonson County Wildcats, coached by the feisty Bo Davenport, manufactured March magic, won the boys’ state basketball title and, in the process, saved the Sweet Sixteen.

Edmonson County welcomed back its hoops heroes last Friday night to honor them again for that improbable and inspiring 1976 championship.

Nine players from the title team returned for the reunion: starters Phil Rich, Chester Bethel, Aaron Goad, Mark Hennion and Kevin Clemmons, sixth man Jeff Doyle, reserves Tim Ashley, Jimmy Cole and Ricky Houchin, along with manager Larry Starnes.

They gathered in the school cafeteria to reminisce as they looked at yellowed newspapers, game programs and black-and-white photos from that glorious season.

Bo Davenport

Bo Davenport

Davenport, who died in 2003, was there in spirit. His players remembered him as a tough coach who demanded a lot from them, but they also knew he cared for them.

“I was scared to death of him for a long time,” said Clemmons, who was a sophomore when Davenport took over. “For a while we thought he was just trying to grind us into the ground. But he was just pushing us to be our best.”

Bethel said Davenport “knew the game and knew how to get the best out of every player he had. He did great scouting reports, so all we had to do was go out and do it.”

The Wildcats’ strengths were ball-handling, shooting and team chemistry.

Rich said the best thing about the ’76 season wasn’t winning the championship. “It was the guys I played with. Nobody did anything for personal gain. You knew everybody was going to do what they were supposed to do. Nobody showboating. What a great group of guys. We were the definition of a team.”

A team nobody considered a state contender at the start of the season.

Davenport, 49, was in his first year with the Wildcats after being fired by Grayson County the previous spring. He brought a new philosophy to Edmonson County, one that stressed ball control. And he had a roster stocked with ball-handlers and shooters.

Edmonson County's 1976 state champs

Edmonson County’s 1976 state champs

It took a while for the Wildcats to find their groove. Owensboro blasted them by 26 points in their opener. They dropped five more regular-season games, and they fell to Glasgow in the 15th District finals.

Nevertheless, Edmonson County was confident going into the 4th Region tournament.

“We felt we could compete with everybody in the region,” Clemmons said. “The thing about this group was, we never felt we couldn’t win.”

After slipping by Franklin-Simpson 59-58 in the region semifinals, Edmonson County rolled by Bowling Green in the finals to earn the school’s first trip to the state tournament.

Doyle remembers getting a psychological boost the night the Wildcats won the region when they learned that Male, led by all-staters Darrell Griffith and Bobby Turner, had lost to Ballard in the 7th Region finals.

“When we heard that, it was kind of a dream, like maybe we have a chance,” Doyle said.

Edmonson County arrived in Louisville as underdogs. Litkenhous rated the 4th Region champs 13th out of 16 teams. Big-city powers such as Ballard, Henry Clay and Shawnee were among the favorites, along with Christian County and Shelby County.

But once the Sweet Sixteen tipped off in Freedom Hall, everything fell into place for Edmonson County.

Ballard, whose lineup included Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker (who would lead the Bruins to the title in 1977), lost to Henry Clay in the quarterfinals. Christian County beat Shawnee and future LSU star Durand “Rudy” Macklin in the quarters.

Edmonson County beat Betsy Layne in the first round and Harrison County in the second round, but the boys from Brownsville still weren’t thinking about taking home the trophy.

“After our game on Friday, our principal was in the locker room and he came by and said, ‘Gosh, you all can win this whole thing.’ I thought, ‘What are you talking about? We were just thinking one game at a time.”

Phil Rich in 1976

Phil Rich in 1976

Phil Rich in 2016

Phil Rich in 2016

It was after the Wildcats’ victory over Harrison County that Davenport bestowed a nickname on Rich, his 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior center, that endures to this day.

“We were down at the half and Coach Davenport came in and told the team we wanted to take the ball inside every time,” Rich recalled. “I think I scored 12 or 14 points in the third quarter and we went back in the lead.

“After game the press asked him what he did to win the game, and he said, ‘I took it to The Mountain.”

Edmonson County escaped Shelby County 53-52 in the semifinals, and Christian County edged Henry Clay 68-67 to set up their showdown for the title.

The championship game was anticlimactic as the Wildcats won in a rout.

Edmonson County shot 60 percent (26 of 43) from the field,  71 percent (22 of 31) from the foul line and crushed Christian County 74-52 in front of 10,500 fans. Hennion had 25 points, “The Mountain” had 20, and Goad added 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“Those other teams didn’t think we had a chance to beat them,” said Bethel, who along with Rich made the all-tournament team. “But you can’t tell by looking at a dog what kind of fight he has in him. We had a lot of fight in us.”

Goad admitted that the Wildcats “didn’t think we couldn’t win it, but we didn’t think we would. It just happened. It just fell into place. Everybody hit on the right chords at the right time.”

Hennion summed it up this way: “Were we the best team there? No. But we put it together the best to win it all.”

Edmonson County returned home the next day and the team was greeted like conquering heroes.

They were celebrated not only in their home county, but across Kentucky, because they had reinvigorated and rescued the state tournament. 

Louisville schools had won the Sweet Sixteen six of the previous seven years, and the big city’s domination had sapped a lot of the excitement out of event. There was a push for the KHSAA dividing basketball into classes so smaller schools would have a chance to win a title.

But Edmonson County proved that a small, rural county school could be crowned champion, and that quieted talk about classification.

“That’s my biggest satisfaction,” Goad said. “Basketball was going to be classed here in Kentucky. So the best thing to happen was the Cinderella shoe falling to us.”

And that’s why 40 years later, the Sweet Sixteen is still The Greatest Show in Hoops.

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