On Thursday, October 9, 1980, a natural gas boiler exploded in the basement of Simon Kenton High School, killing one student who had been in an art classroom next to the boiler room. A subsequent larger explosion injured many first responders and rendered the building unusable for months. SK students wound up going to classes from early afternoon to early evening at another school in the county for the rest of the school year.
Five-and-a-half months later, SK’s boys basketball team rattled off four wins in three days—back then, the semifinals and finals were both played on the same day—to be crowned the state champions at the 1981 Kentucky Sweet Sixteen. It was a story for the ages, and also the first time a school from the Ninth Region (then comprised of all the high schools in the three northernmost counties of Kentucky, close to Cincinnati) had won the whole shebang. Their star player, Troy McKinley, parlayed a hot hand at the tournament into a scholarship at the University of Kentucky (alas, he was mostly a benchwarmer until his senior year there).
But this magic ride almost didn’t happen; my high school’s team came this close to knocking SK out in the very early going.
Kentucky is one of just a handful of states that doesn’t classify basketball teams—all schools are entered into one big free-for-all tournament. There are 16 Regions, with each Region divided into 4 Districts. The two finalists from each District compete in the Regional tournament, and the winner of each Regional advances to the Sweet Sixteen.
In 1981, there were seven teams in the 33rd District, the largest in the entire state (some Districts had as few as four teams). That meant a team in the 33rd likely had to win two games to advance to the District finals and gain a berth in the Regional. The draw each year was always random, so a team had only a one-in-seven chance of getting that precious first-round bye.
Walton-Verona’s 80-81 team was by far the best one during my years there. It was a fairly senior-laden group, led by Johnny Anderson, the feisty point guard and star athlete at the school, and Andy Burns, the six-seven center who’d willed himself into becoming a dominant post presence. They went 26-6 in the regular season and, as the second-best team in the District, were legitimate contenders to advance to the Regional for the first time in quite a while.
Unfortunately, the random draw gods placed W-V in the same half of the District bracket with Simon Kenton, who, despite having to practice and play their home games at gyms all over the Region, had delivered on the promise they had going into the season (they were responsible for one of W-V’s losses).
I had been manager/statistician for the boys’ team my sophomore year (the halftime locker room was more than occasionally a chance for various players to lobby me for an additional rebound or assist). I’d had to give that position up my junior year due to my job at the IRS (that’s why I’m not in the picture at the top), but since I’d quit by early March, I was asked to assist and found myself front and center at the official scorers’ table during the District tournament, keeping stats there.
The tourney was held at Boone County HS, in Florence, and we defeated the host school in the first round. W-V was confident and ready to take on SK on that Thursday evening. It turned out to be the most exciting HS basketball game I ever saw.
Of course, so many of the details of the game are lost to me now, but it was overall well-played and pretty tight throughout. I’ve read accounts in recent days that remind me that W-V held an eight-point lead with about two-and-a-half minutes to play. Simon Kenton came back to force overtime, obviously, but one extra five-minute period wasn’t enough. At the end of the second overtime, the score was 72-70; we were headed home. Coach Eades praised the team in the locker room afterward, but for the most part, it was mostly silence, tears, and disappointment in there. Completely emotionally draining.
That loss on 3/5/81 was the first entry in my “Ten Events and the Songs I Associate with Them” document from that year. The song was this week’s #55 tune, Journey’s “The Party’s Over (Hopelessly in Love),” which I’d been already hearing for a while (it wouldn’t hit the Top 40 for three more weeks—sorry, taking liberties again—and climbed as high as #34). Here’s what I wrote about it—I guess you can blame me for jinxing them (note that I mistakenly wrote it was the Regional instead of District):
Two weeks later, Dad drove my friend Bill and me down to Rupp Arena to watch Simon Kenton play their first-round game in the Sweet Sixteen, one they won by a single point (I associate that evening with the Journey song, too—truth be told, it’s one of my five favorites of theirs). Their total margin of victory across the four Sweet Sixteen games en route to the championship was just eleven points, seven of those in the final game. W-V remained the only one across all levels of the tourney to extend them beyond regulation.
This year, W-V had perhaps its most successful season ever: for the fourth time in school history (but first since 1942), they made it to the Sweet Sixteen. They even won a game while there. I didn’t get to see them play (I would have gone had they reached the semifinals), but I know it was incredibly exciting for the town. That 81 team and the what-could-have-beens sure were on my mind during their run, though.