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Nicholas County’s run to glory 25 years ago

March 9, 2018 FieldsColumn

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After leading Nicholas County to the 1993 Sweet 16 title, Kim Denkins was the cover girl for the 1994 state tournament.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Kim Denkins is a social worker at a nursing home in Nicholas County, and more than occasionally she’ll be reminded of her basketball celebrity.

“It’s funny. Like when I’m doing orientation, somebody will say, ‘Are you Kim Denkins?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, I used to play ball.'”

Denkins’ modesty keeps her from telling folks she did much more than just “play ball.”

Twenty-five years ago she was the shining star on a high school basketball team that brought unprecedented glory to Nicholas County, and a sense of community pride that endures to this day.

Barbara Kenney, who guided the Bluejackets to the All “A” state title and the Sweet Sixteen championship in 1993, still cherishes the memories of those girls who proved that a small school could make big dreams come true.

 “It was quite a feat,” she said, “but we knew we had something special.”

Kenney and several players from that team will be recognized during Sunday’s St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 finals at NKU on the silver anniversary of their state title.

Denkins went on to have a standout career at the University of Kentucky, finishing with 1,057 points and 762 rebounds. But she still considers her playing days at Nicholas County as her crowning achievement.

“College was awesome, but I’d say the best time and the best highlight of my career was what we did in high school,” she said.

“(Carlisle) is a small town, but our fans packed every gym no matter where we played. Just knowing you had all those people wanting to come watch you play every night was pretty special.”

It was quite an achievement for a school with only 375 students to claim the big trophy. What made it even more remarkable was just how far Nicholas County’s girls’ basketball program came in the years leading up to its grand success.

In the 12 seasons before Kenney convinced administrators the Bluejackets needed a junior high team for girls’ basketball, Nicholas County had an overall record of 21-199.

Seven years after the junior high feeder system was established, Nicholas County swept the All “A” and Sweet 16 titles.

“I wasn’t so arrogant to think we’d ever have a team that could win a state championship,” Kenney said. “My goal was just to have a competitive team that people would respect, and when we walked in the gym they wouldn’t laugh behind our backs and say, ‘Here’s an easy win.’”

Barbara Kenney helped hoist the state championship trophy in 1993. (Courier-Journal photo)

Nicholas County was blessed with a group of talented young players, including Nikki Smoot, Renee Linville and Kenney’s daughter, Christie Hatton.

“I started coaching those three together when they were in the sixth grade, and I was the only coach they had through high school,” Kenney said.

Right behind that trio came another strong class, headed by Denkins, Elizabeth Schanding and Alicia Sibert.

“Everything fell into place,” Kenney said. “And Kim was a big part of that.”

Denkins grew to be a dominating 6-foot-3 center, and she was surrounded by a group of quick, defensive-minded guards led by Hatton and Smoot.

Nicholas County gave a hint of what was to come by winning 30 games in the 1991-92 season and making it to the Sweet 16 quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champ Mercy.

The Bluejackets fulfilled their potential the next season, winning the All “A” in early February, then sweeping to the Sweet 16 title seven weeks later.

Denkins never considered little ol’ Nicholas County an underdog to the bigger schools.

“Me personally, I thought when I went out there to play we could beat anybody,” she said. “I didn’t care what their name was or who they were. I never dreamed we’d ever get beat.”

Denkins had a monster state tournament, ringing up a double-double in every game:

— 19 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks in a 61-47 win over Whitesburg in the first round.

— 26 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks in a 52-43 win over Calloway County in the quarterfinals.

— 17 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks in a 37-31 win over Clay County in the semifinals.

— 25 points, 18 rebounds, 2 blocks in a 48-46 win over Warren East in the finals.

Denkins confessed that she and her teammates had little superstitions they clung to during their run to the state title.

Denkins, for example, wore the same “old, black rubber-band thing” in her hair every game that season. She was close to panic when she realized she didn’t have it before Nicholas County took the floor in the Frankfort Civic Center before the state finals.

“I had left it in my hotel room,” she said. “I wasn’t about to go out there, even for warm-ups, without it.”

Denkins’ grandmother came to the rescue, retrieving it from the nearby hotel.

Kenney had her own fashion superstition. She had a favorite red dress that she wanted to wear if her Bluejackets made it to the Sweet 16 title game, but she didn’t want to take it to the team hotel, lest she jinx things.

After Nicholas County survived the semifinals, a good friend brought Kenney the red dress from home.

“I still have it, and it still fits,” she said proudly.

Kenney’s prize keepsake, however, is her state championship ring. Unfortunately, she’s misplaced it. “I’m really upset,” she said. “I hope I can find it. Whenever I wear that ring, it’s always noticed.”

But even more meaningful to Kenney are the memories of that championship season. Her whole family was involved. Her daughter Christie was a standout player. Her husband Mike was her assistant coach. Their son Joey was team manager.

And then there was the close-knit group of girls who were one big happy family.

“As you age, it gets better every year,” Kenney said. “And part of that is being able to see those kids who played basketball for you become wonderful citizens and wonderful mothers and be so successful in life.

“It all makes me terribly proud.”

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