Coach Newsome whispers the secret of life in Justice's ear
Defending Kentucky state champions, Shelby Valley, fell in their Sweet Sixteen opening round game to Christian County by a humbling score of 83-40.
Instead of hitting the beach, I spent a portion of my spring break in the mountains of Pike County in Eastern Kentucky. Specifically, Virgie, just outside of Pikeville. I killed two birds with one stone: visiting my family there and taking my significant other on a visit to check out her roots. I can trace the beginnings of my Kentucky-fanhood directly to this stretch of road
, where my mother grew up in between the looming mountains you see in every direction. From the day I was born, in Louisville, she spoon fed me love for Kentucky, taking me back to Pike County every chance she got.
I am also lucky enough to have basketball in my blood because of Virgie. My grandfather grew up playing round-ball. All three of my uncles played in the Sweet Sixteen for Virgie. My mother even cheered in several Sweet Sixteens. The tradition never ended. My cousin, Tyler Newsome, won a state title with Shelby Valley last year, a school that emerged when Virgie High School, home to former Mr. Basketball Todd May, conglomerated with others in the early 1990's. Now, the Shelby Valley basketball team is headed by my uncle, Greg Newsome.
Newsome was not the head coach during the title run, but he was an assistant. Former head coach, Jason Booher, certainly deserves credit for winning a title, but Newsome groomed the boys from last year's team from a young age, organizing and coaching them to several AAU titles along with a few other mountain high school stars of the recent past (greatly aided with all of this by Robert Newsome, no relation). This year, Newsome was handed the reigns to the defending state champs, knowing he was losing 7 of his to players from 2010.
What he did not
know, however, was that he would lose an eighth player with major playing experience that he was counting on to be a leader due to eligibility issues. By the time the season's first game rolled around, he found himself with 6 eighth graders on the varsity squad trying to defend a 15th region title and a state championship. The season went by, with the team struggling as many expected them to do after losing their core from the previous year. The Wildcats lost 9 of their final 14 regular season games. As they entered tournament play with their 9-16 record, expectations were not high, to say the least. They squeaked by in the first game of their district tournament only to then lose to Pikeville in the district final, just enough to qualify for the regional tournament.
In the regional, Shelby Valley caught fire, as they made comeback after comeback to windup in the championship game. Waiting for them that night was the Pikeville Panthers, their main rival who had beaten them three times prior this year. The Wildcats fought a hard battle with their bitter rivals, and they somehow prevailed in the end to repeat as 15th Region Champions. Greg Newsome and his boys had done the unthinkable, overcoming the seemingly insurmountable odds to punch their ticket for a return trip to play on the hallowed ground that is Rupp Arena.
Coach Newsome is no stranger to this season-end Kentucky tradition. He played in three straight Sweet Sixteens at Virgie before going on to play for Pikeville College (Where he played with my father and his twin brother. Here I stand as a result of that. Thanks, Uncle). Despite his familiarity with the tournament, he, nor any of his brothers, could find a way to capture the ever-elusive state title. Last season was a special season, with Newsome getting to coach his son to what many thought to only be a dream: bringing the state title back to the mountains (last done by Paintsville in 1996, with Elliot Co. and Paintsville falling a tad short in recent years). The tradition had come full circle, with the ultimate goal finally being achieved by someone in his bloodline. All the hard work by the young men on Shelby Valley had paid off, and their parents and fans, plenty in similar situations to Greg Newsome in that they played with dreams of winning state, finally got to see just that happen.
This year, obviously, was a different story for both the kids and for Newsome. In his first year as a high school head coach, Newsome somehow led the way for the Wildcats' surprise visit to Rupp. The credit truly goes to the kids
, however, and they deserve it. Tonight, they took a beating from Christian County (a team that actually beat last year's champs in the regular season), losing by 43. And while falling in the first round of the Sweet Sixteen may not seem like much when compared to winning it all just a year ago, these kids had to have been elated to just be there after their struggles this season. Shelby Valley, ending the year with a record of 13-18, is only the second team in the history of the tournament to come in with 17 losses.
As I roamed around Pike County this past weekend, I stared out from an overlook where I could see miles of beautiful mountains. I told my girlfriend more history about the area than I even knew I remembered. I thought about how happy my Uncle Greg seemed earlier that day when I saw him in his old gym down the street from my grandmother's home, as he wrapped up an interview with the Courier-Journal on the phone. I thought about all the memories I had as a kid here, all the times I shot basketball in a gymnasium, all the stories I heard of how "they almost had it" back in the day, all the pictures hanging on the walls of teams with goofy haircuts and short-shorts. I could not help but smile knowing that I got a chance to see a team finally go all the way last year. Whether you are from the mountains or not, the Hoosier-esque story of last year's team was something every young ball player or fan dreams about. Instead of returning to the shadows this season, Shelby Valley kept their dream going just a bit longer than most expected.