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Clay Birdwhistell took a game program, then rolled it tightly into his right hand.
Wooden, you know. John Wooden.
“Do I look that old?” Birdwhistell asked on his Twitter account.
Well, not really. Birdwhistell is in his early 30s while the Wizard of Westwood recently celebrated No. 99.
But the tongue-in-cheek nickname given by this writer might just stick. The Anderson County Middle School girls' basketball team has been winning – make that crushing – the opposition for three years with the current “A-team,” made up mostly of eighth-graders never having tasted defeat against teams in their own age group during their middle school years.
If that group of Lady Mustangs makes the Mid-Kentukcy Middle School Conference champiohnship game, as expected, it will be going for 60 straight wins as a team. Or the NCAA record before Wooden and his UCLA team shattered it on the way to 88.
And like Wooden, and just about any other successful coach, Birdwhistell and the ACMS staff, Nick Cann and Keith Currens, rarely talk about winning. It is more about playing sound fundamentally, playing hard and smart and letting the scoreboard take care of itself.
Anderson has taken care of itself with an eighth-grade team that is considered one of the best in Kentucky. The seventh-grade, or “B-team” took its conference tournament last week and now stands at 27-0 this year with a state tournament to come.
The sixth grade team? It just finished its season at 21-1.
That makes the Anderson teams a combined 72-1 heading into the A-team tournament that started Monday after press time.
It helps that the team is loaded with enough talent that some feel it has the potential to not only break Anderson County High School's 31-year (and counting) drought on a regional championship, but to make noise statewide and contend for a state championship by 2014, when they are seniors in high school.
Of course that is all speculation and largely fan talk, but Birdwhistell does not deny that the Lady Mustangs are loaded. Winning by more than 25 points a game is proof of that. “Our practices are very competitive,” he says. “Practices are more competitive than most of our games. I think we could play our second five and be competitive with most teams.”
But Birdwhistell concedes that the Lady Mustangs lack the perfect classic mix. “Really, this is a flawed team. I have a power forward playing center. I have a small forward playing power forward. But the reason they haven't been beaten is they compete harder than any middle school team I have ever seen. (Anderson County High School coach) Tony Kays came to one of our practices and said, 'They compete like a varsity team.”
The talent is there. Eighth-graders Eriel McKee and Mackenzie Cann were both forced into action for the high school last season. On the varsity team at that.
All McKee did was end up on the All-Eighth Region Tournament team. “She's my power forward playing center,” Birdwhistell says. “She is 5-(foot)-9, but has a wingspan of about 6-1.”
Birdwhistell says, like any successful team, the Lady Mustangs have unsung heroes. “I don't think people realize what Destiny Stewart means to this team,” Birdwhistell says. “She distributes the ball, does all the little things, but whenever we have had to have it, she steps up and scores.”
Rarely have the Lady Mustangs experienced a close call, although conference fival Old Kentucky Home has a strong team that has won over 20 games. Anderson could be forced to beat the Wildcats a third time, a very difficult task.
“One thing that sets this team apart is their pressure. You see so much zone defense in middle school basketball,” Birdwhistell says. “We pressure.”
The Lady Mustangs try to do the same things that Kays is doing at the high school. Kays has given Birdwhistell and the staff a free rein on the team. “The success of this team flows from the top down,” Birdwhistell says. “Tony is a huge part of this program.”
There are no district and regional tournaments as in high school, but a teams can enter a state tournament that will be held at Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington Nov. 13-15. The championship game will be played at Rupp Arena.
The fact that any team can be a part of the tournament and not everyone participates prompts some to discount its legitimacy, but Birdwhistell says it is incorrect to do so.
“It isn't like the high schools, but after being involved in AAU ball and middle school basketball,” Birdwhistell says, “I can guarantee you that if a team can play, it will be there.”
The Lady Mustangs have some unfinished business at the state. A year ago, there was no state tournament for seventh-grade teams and the current group joined the eighth-grade club to compete. With a starting lineup that included an eighth-grader, three seventh-graders (McKee, Cann and Stewart) and a sixth-grader (Corrin Robinson), the Lady Mustangs advanced to the Elite Eight before being eliminated by Lincoln County.
(The loss did not blemish the current Lady Mustang streak since it was a contest played against older players.)
“Last year, we played Meyzeek, who was supposed to be the best team in Louisville, and sent them home,” Birdwhistell remembers. “We played Beaumont, which feeds Dunbar, and sent them home.
“This group wants to win the whole thing this year, but I don't want them to take the attitude that it is state championship or bust. This team has accomplished a lot! If we win our conference tournament, that is 60 wins. That is a tremendous accomplishment.”
And Lady Bearcat fans believe it might just be the first of many. Already, the word is out that Anderson County is about to be loaded and should be a force in the Eighth Region over the next five years. Some are saying this group has the potential of not just getting to the Sweet 16, but making it more than once.
Birdwhistell, however, has been around the high school game enough to know that so many things can happen and that Lady Luck is often the difference between joy and heartbreak.
“I don't want to put unfair expectations on them,” he says, “but they can play basketball.”
And about that rolled program?
“The only common denominator between me and Coach Wooden is that when you get better players, you get to be better coaches.”
E-mail John Herndon at email@example.com.