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Coach Kays steps down

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Long-time leader: 'It was just time'

By John Herndon

Tony Kays needed some time and a little pickin' and grinnin' to be sure.

Kays, a guitar aficionado who has been coaching girls' basketball at Anderson County High School for 15 years, had changed his mind about returning to the sideline another year almost two weeks ago.

He needed to get away.

Just to be sure.

After Kays and his wife, Susan, returned from an impromptu trip to Nashville on May 10-11, Kays just knew.

He told Anderson County School Superintendent Sheila Mitchell first. Then, he told high school principal Chris Glass and athletic director Rick Sallee.

Then he got the returning Lady Bearcats together and broke the news that he would not be returning to lead the Lady Bearcats in 2014-15.

“I just wanted to make sure I took plenty of time,” Kays said in an exclusive interview with The Anderson News last Wednesday. “I wanted to make sure I felt the same way after I got back from Nashville.”

He was as sure as Little Jimmy Dickens showing up for the Grand Ole Opry.

That had not been the case since the Lady Bearcats exited the state tournament on March 14.

In an interview conducted on April 11 and published in The Anderson News two weeks ago, Kays was emphatic he would be back on the sidelines next winter.

“Why shouldn't I be back?” he said at the time. “(Losing five seniors who had been to three state tournaments) does not have anything to do with why I coach.

“As long as my health is good and as long as I can help them get better, I will be here.”

Kays had repeated his declaration several times since then.

            Missa Walker, one of the Lady Bearcats' three rising seniors, was not expecting the news. “It totally took me by surprise,” she said. “Even at our banquet (on May 8), he never mentioned he was retiring,  so it never came to mind. He will be missed.”

Why the change of heart?

“I wasn't trying to mislead anyone,” Kays explained. “I guess it has been in the back of my mind since I retired from teaching. I just wanted to make sure I took plenty of time and didn't make a snap decision.

“It was nothing specific. It is just time.”

Kays said when he told his returning players, “It just got real quiet in there.”

“There were a couple of people crying, including myself,” said Corrin Robinson, another rising senior. “It's just tough because he has been my coach since sixth grade.”

Kays left the classroom two years ago but remained on the sidelines as the Anderson girls' basketball program rose to a place among the state's elite. While Anderson will see a drop in experience and talent level, the Lady Bearcats are considered one of the teams capable of making a Sweet 16 run next March.

Anderson had not been to the state tournament in 32 years when Kays' team, which boasted a pair of eighth-graders in the starting lineup, rolled through the Eighth Region in 2010. That eighth-grade class, led by first team all-state players Makenzie Cann and Eriel McKee, would make two more appearances in the Sweet 16. Anderson went 34-2 and finished third at the state in 2013. The Lady Bearcats, ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season, finished 28-5 and were eliminated by Elizabethtown in the Elite Eight this year.

Like most Kentucky coaches, Kays says making the Sweet 16 was the pinnacle of his career.

“Winning that first regional championship would have to be my biggest thrill (in coaching),” Kays said. “We were a little under the radar and did what not many expected us to do.

“All three of the regional championships were big thrills though. That first district title (2009) was pretty special too.”

Anderson had gone 31 years without even a district crown until whipping Spencer County in the district final that season.

It had been quite a ride from the day when Kays, a 1975 Anderson graduate, watched his first team, the girls' junior varsity team at Murray High School, take the court. Kays, then a college senior at Murray State, was not much older than his players.

He also helped coach football and boys' basketball at McLean County High in western Kentucky, then came home to Anderson, where he has coached football, tennis, track and girls' basketball. He actually led the boys' basketball team for two games when head coach Glen Drury was recovering from an injury.

“I figured it up a few days ago and, I have coached in 59 seasons over 35 years,” Kays said with a smile. “You just know it is time.”

Kays has been an assistant coach under three coaches in halls of fame: Sam Harp (football), Randy Crist (track) and Drury (basketball).

Kays said he has no specific plans for the future. He is often seen riding his bike around Anderson County and says he will keep that hobby alive. More travel with his wife is also on the agenda.

Kays does not plan on getting heavily involved in the search for his successor. “(The position) is quite attractive and will draw a lot of attention,” he says. “I will help the transition anyway I can.”

When Kays met with The Anderson News last Wednesday, he had largely cleaned his office already. But he admits that he expects the tug to get back in coaching to show up sometime soon.

“I know I will miss the interaction with the kids,” he says. “I will miss the interaction with the boys' coaches too. We have a really unique relationship with the boys' coaches.

“I am sure I will miss it. It will be tough because it has been our lifestyle. I am very grateful and it has been a rewarding experience. I just wanted to make sure I would not make a snap decision.”