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There had to be times when the collective knot in Anderson County's stomach might have been incurable during last week's state basketball tournament.
Nothing against Shelby County. The Bearcats' chief rival proved during the Eighth Region Tournament that those who had written Shelby off because of some puzzling mid-season losses were quite mistaken. Down 5 inside the last half-minute of the regional championship game, Shelby showed the heart of a champion by coming back to win against Gallatin County.
At the Sweet 16, Shelby took the perceived snub of being ranked 16th in the field by one poll and turned it into a mission that did not end until the final minute of the semifinal game against eventual champ Mason County.
Using a deep bench and stifling defense, Shelby, one of those storied names in Kentucky high school basketball, advanced further in the Sweet 16 than any Rocket team had since 1978. That season, Norris Beckley and Charles Hurt led the Rockets to their second state championship in 12 years.
As coach Mike Clark pointed out in the press conference following the semifinal, this Shelby team was picked third in the region in the pre-season and ended up third in the state.
"I think it shows just how good they are," Anderson County coach Glen Drury said from his courtside seat at Rupp Arena. "They were the most athletic team in our region and have played very well."
The Rockets manhandled what was supposed to be a very good Lincoln County team. Lincoln could not get heated up from the perimeter, prompting the debate of whether that was because of Shelby's defense or the difference of playing in a big house like Rupp after spending most of the year playing in high school gymnasiums.
Then Shelby came from behind against a very good and very underrated Hazard team that might have had the best point guard - Josh Whitaker - in the Sweet 16. Shelby simply wore Hazard down.
It took a state champion with a future Kentucky Wildcat, Darius Miller, to oust Shelby.
The Rockets are to be commended for their run.
But if anything, it only made Anderson County a bit more wistful in reflecting on March of 2008. It could have been the Bearcats.
Anderson fans, including your's truly, might take solace in the fact that the Bearcats were seriously hampered by sickness in regional play. While that is true, it is also true that injuries, sickness and breaks of the game are part of what a team has to endure. Sports history is filled with countless "ifs" but as Howard Cosell used to say, "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas."
In other words, we can talk but it won't change the outcome.
Drury, however, is looking forward to next season when, barring injury or transfers in or out, Anderson and Shelby are expected to be at the top of the region again. Shelby returns just one starter, but the first three off the bench, all of whom played extensively, return.
Of Anderson's first 7 players in 2008, 4 return. The Bearcats also had some promising players on a junior varsity team that went 15-1, losing only to Bardstown in early December. Like 2007-08, the Bearcats will be considered one of the teams to beat.
"We are going to have to develop some players," Drury said. "The seniors we lose this year contributed so much."
Point guard Ryan Wells used grit and court smarts to become one of the better point guards in the region. Defensively, he made himself into a very good defensive player. Nathan Grooms was very effective in the paint, despite being only 6-foot-3, while Seth Goodlett accepted his role as a defender and offense off the bench. He was very effective in both. Austin Corn, at 6-5, provided quality depth up front. Anderson will miss all four.
"Last year, we lost 4 seniors," Drury said. "We missed all of them. We lost quickness and depth which showed throughout the year.
"We are going to miss these seniors and have a difficult time replacing them."
Regional player of the year C.J. Penny will again lead next year's team. The senior-to-be will be ranked in the top 10 players in the state, maybe top 5, for 2008-09. "There is no doubt about that," Drury says. "He is an outstanding player, but he has some areas where he needs to work on."
Juniors-to-be Jacob Russell and Will Ruggles started every game and backup forward Nick Humphries often saw as many minutes as the starters.
"We are going to have to develop a point guard," Drury says.
There were times in junior varsity games when junior-to-be Allen Warford showed he could direct the attack, while senior-to-be Landon Jenkins appeared to be a "take charge" type of player. If Drury opts more for defense, junior-to-be Ben Walker might get the call.
"We might put C.J. in that role," Drury says. "He is a great passer and he is clever with the ball. We might go point guard by committee."
Another JV player that improved greatly through the year and could push for a starting nod next winter is senior-to-be Walt Ruggles, Will's cousin.
"We have some options next year," Drury says.
While Anderson and Shelby are expected to be at the top of the region next year, Gallatin County, while losing quite a bit, still returns Trent Maddox, runner-up to Penny for player of the year, and Zac Jones, who burned Anderson. Owen County, which nearly upset Shelby in the first round of the region, returns nearly its entire roster, including all-region pick Collin Gamble and 6-foot-6 Lucas Shelton. North Oldham loses its top player, Mike Rowan, but has several strong returnees as well.
"Simon Kenton, Oldham and South Oldham will be good," Drury said. "Grant County will be a lot better. They have a lot of kids back."
Down the stretch, Drury lamented the fact that his team was not seriously tested in February. It is a situation he is trying to change next season. The schedule is taking shape with the Bearcats tentatively scheduled to return to the King of the Bluegrass at Fairdale. Drury is also hoping to get in some other tournaments that will better prepare his team, which finished 20-6, for a tournament run.
"We have an opportunity to be very good," he said. "But we are going to have to work in the offseason."