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Tony Kays never showed any sign of panic last Wednesday. Not once. Not even for a nanosecond.
“He kept telling us, 'We can still do this,'” Anderson County senior Kali Whiteside said.
All season long, the Lady Bearcats had been considered one of the state's best teams. After a monstrous December, Anderson moved up to No. 2 in the state and earned the tag as the team to beat in the Eighth Region. Yet, there the Lady Bearcats were, staring at a 10-point deficit with 90 seconds to play.
“We can do this.”
It might not have been Kays' reaction 10, maybe even five, years ago.
“He was definitely calmer than I was that last 1:18,” says Kays' wife, Susan. “I knew he wasn't that calm on the inside, but I think the last thing he wanted the girls to think was that he thought they were beat.”
Those last 90 seconds of regulation and then the 4-minute overtime, when Anderson overcame Simon Kenton, might have the been highlight reel in which Kays has done a masterful job guiding the Lady Bearcats to a 32-1 record and their second Sweet 16 berth in four years.
Part of Kays' growth has undoubtedly been a result of the wealth of talent at his disposal.
But part of it has to stem from a decision Kays made last year to retire from teaching. Technically, he's a para-professional coach. Kays gave up teaching physical education after 32 years, but stayed on the sideline where his blood runs deep.
“He just seems happier,” smiles Anderson junior Alex Avritt.
“I have more energy every day,” Kays admits. “When you are teaching and coaching, you are in the classroom from 7-3. You have students and you have to check on them and work on teaching because that comes first.
“Then you are coaching from after school until late at night. If you are scouting, you are out so late and then you have to be
“It has been nice. I have been doing this for 33 years now. I probably don't yell and scream as much. Part of that is that I feel the team is better prepared. I have delegated responsibilities to the assistants. That has taken a lot of decisions off my mind. I feel comfortable and relaxed.”
There is no question about that. While it would be a mistake to say he's void of emotion, Kays' demeanor through the season has undoubtedly boosted the confidence his team has shown through the year.
Most of the time, the Lady Bearcats have been so far ahead that he's been able to sit back and enjoy the final minutes of most games. But even then, there is no question that lack of effort or attention to detail is not tolerated.
Thirty-two minutes of excellence is expected. It took that, plus four more, for the Lady Bearcats to be playing in Diddle Arena.
“I have been coaching girls' basketball for a while now,” says Kays, who took over the reins of the Anderson program in the 1999-2000 school year. “One of my goals was to coach the girls like you do the boys.”
The expectations are now high around the Lady Bearcat program. Anderson has been to five of the last six regional finals.
Yet, those who have seen Anderson basketball over the years will tell you things are different.
“I think (Kays) has changed tremendously,” says first-year assistant coach Courtney Milam. “When I played for him, he wasn't scared to yell and get in my face when I made a bad pass or had a stupid foul. Now when I watch him, he has definitely mellowed out.”
Milam was the cornerstone of Kays' first regional finalist in 2008. She completed her college career at St. Catharine College last year and is completing her requirements in order to teach. She hopes to be working with the Lady Bearcats for a while.
Bringing Milam aboard was a major plus for the program. While Kays has had female staff members before, it had been a while since one worked with the varsity. Part of her job has been to work with post players, but part has been to just be a “good cop.”
“She has been a liaison,” Kays says. “She is just out of college and age-wise, she is close. The girls trust her.”
“As we can all imagine, high school girls can be a handful,” Milam says. “I think having a girl coach has definitely helped them this year....Heaven knows they won't go talk to Coach Kays about their girl problems.”
Assistant coach Clay Birdwhistell is in charge of the Anderson offense while Nick Cann handles the defense.
It has been an unforgettable ride for Kays this year, but not one that has gone off without a hitch. Last fall, his step-father was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away on Jan. 14.
“It has been a very difficult time for his mom,” Susan Kays says. “Her husband was a very kind man and had been wonderful to Tony's mom. Naturally, when our parents are going through a hard time, it carries over into our lives.
“It was a rough winter, but I think basketball was such a bright spot for him that in a way, it carried us through that hard time. Things are much better and she is so excited and proud of Tony.”
Down deep Kays knows he has been blessed in a way few coaches are.
Not only do the Lady Bearcats have an abundance of talent, he often marvels at their chemistry on and off the court.
They have put together one of the greatest seasons in Anderson County history, regardless of school, regardless of sport.
It will end sometime this week, possibly Wednesday night.
But Tony Kays will still be a happy man.
“I have been coaching 33 years,” he says with a smile. “It has been really rewarding to know that I am in the latter stages of my career and have a team like this.”
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