Roy Bowling ushered girls’ basketball into modern era
BY MIKE FIELDS
LONDON – The most influential coach in the history of girls’ high school basketball in Kentucky, whose early string of state championships prodded other schools to take the sport seriously, didn’t exactly jump at the chance to help usher the girls’ game into the modern era.
Roy Bowling had coached boys’ basketball at Hazel Green, and boys’ basketball and baseball at London, and he was the baseball coach at Laurel County when superintendent Hayward Gilliam called him into his office one day and asked if he would start up their girls’ basketball program after the KHSAA reintroduced the sport in 1974.
Bowling didn’t have to think about it. “You’re out of your mind!” he told Gilliam.
After all, Bowling’s first love was baseball – he had pitched for Georgetown College (his arsenal included a wicked curveball), and his Laurel County baseball team was on the brink of a run to the state final four.
On the other hand, Bowling’s only exposure to girls’ basketball had been as a phys-ed teacher a few years earlier, and he hadn’t seen much potential in the girls playing the game in gym class.
But Gilliam persisted. He wanted somebody with basketball coaching experience to get the Laurel County girls’ program off on the right foot.
Bowling finally relented, and agreed to coach the girls, and also continue coaching baseball.
He wore himself out coaching both sports for two years before giving up baseball after the Cardinals reached the state semifinals in 1976.
What swayed Bowling to stick with girls’ basketball? He had discovered a bounty of grade-school talent. Up-and-coming players such as Sharon Garland, Lisa Collins and Delena House would help build Laurel County’s legacy.
That first season (1974-75), the Lady Cardinals went 20-2, but fell to Monticello in the 12th Region finals. The next season they took a 30-0 record and No. 1 state ranking into the region title game, but again lost to Monticello.
Bowling knew he had to get his team over the mental hurdle of beating Monticello, so he invited their region rival to play in an invitational tournament to tip off the 1976-77 season. Laurel County won that matchup, “and that got the monkey off our back,” Bowling said.
Laurel County went on to win the 1977 state title, edging Paris 48-46 before a full house of 6,500 fans at Eastern Kentucky University. The Lady Cards finished with a 30-1 record.
It was the beginning of a mini-dynasty, the first of three consecutive state championships, for Laurel County.
In 1978, the Lady Cards bested Breathitt County 63-48 in the finals. Garland and Sizemore were voted all-tournament again.
In 1979, Laurel County clipped Paris (led by Beth Wilkerson) 58-48 in the state semifinals, and Lafayette (led by Lea Wise) 43-36 in the championship game.
“If we needed points, we knew where to go – to Sharon inside or Lisa (Collins) outside, because Lisa could absolutely shoot the eyes out of it,” Bowling said.
Garland, Collins and Elizabeth Louthan made the all-tournament team for Laurel County, which had fashioned a two-year 57-game winning streak.
Garland graduated, but the Lady Cards, sparked by Collins, continued their success the next season and took a 14-0 record into the Louisville Invitational Tournament in January, 1980.
After escaping Mercy 49-46 in front of 3,000 fans at Atherton in the opening game, Laurel County pulled out a 52-51 overtime thriller against Manual in the quarterfinals for its 73rd consecutive victory.
But Allen County-Scottsville beat the Lady Cards 47-40 in the semifinals, ending the long winning streak.
Looking back, Bowling said he wasn’t surprised by his players’ resolve in capturing three consecutive state titles and putting together a victory string that still stands as a state record.
“They were just determined,” he said. “They had so much pride in the team. And we never had any problems. They were always on time for practice, worked hard and listened. They tried to do everything you asked them to do and they did it the best they could.”
Bowling also credited long-time assistant and close friend Rex Fredericks (who died two years ago) for being the “backbone” of the program. “He was an excellent fundamentalist, and an excellent defensive coach,” Bowling said. “We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Laurel County remained a powerhouse, but didn’t win another state title until 1987 when it beat Doss (led by Kim Pehlke) 50-48 for the championship. The Lady Cards’ Joretta Carney was tournament MVP.
Bowling retired after the 1989 season with a 15-year record of 403-61 at Laurel County. He was only 53, but he had health problems, including an ulcer that hospitalized him for nine days.
As it turned out, he wasn’t done with coaching. He went to Mercy in 1992 and stayed five years.
After almost 10 years away from the game, he got back in it one more time, at North Laurel, where he coached five more seasons.
Returning to the sidelines helped him cope with the death of one of his three daughters. Six months after Jan Bowling Duncum passed away, Bowling accepted the North Laurel job on June 12, 2006, which would have been Jan’s 41st birthday.
Bowling was an even-keeled coach. He was whistled for only one technical foul in his career. (It came when he was at Mercy.) “I had been a referee myself when I was younger, so I respected referees and the job they had to do,” he said.
As for girls’ basketball today, Bowling sees more athletic players and a faster-paced game. “But I think my teams from back then could still compete now,” he said. “We took care of the ball.”
Bowling and his wife Mary Jo, who have seven grandchildren, still live in London.
“I’m 81 now, but it seems like I just started coaching yesterday at Hazel Green,” Bowling said. “Where’d all this time go? I guess when you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it goes faster.”
It was the great fortune of girls’ basketball in Kentucky that Roy Bowling got into the game and grew to love it.
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