March 1, 2013

On The Rebound: Whitley County, Middlesboro shock the region

By Mitch Howard
Sports Writer

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — It’s a shocking thing to wake up on a February morning to find out that Clay County has lost in the 13th Region Tournament. I didn’t go to Wednesday night’s opener of the Girls’ 13th Region Tournament. At current gas prices, I could put a down payment on a home for what it cost to drive to Harlan County.It may have been worth it to see this game. Whitley County edged the Lady Tigers 56-54. You can’t call it a fluke because the Lady Colonels also won at Clay County on Dec. 10, 58-55. With the injuries the Lady Colonels have suffered this season, four starters lost, it didn’t look like they would be the biggest threat to the Clay County reign. The earlier loss ended a streak of 61 straight wins against 13th Region opponents for Clay County. The last time Clay County lost in the 13th Region Tournament was 2008 when South Laurel punched their ticket to the Sweet 16 with 74-64 win at Knox Central.

Or maybe we should have put more credence into the post season farewell tour of Larry Anderson. The long-time Whitley County coach has announced his retirement after 26 seasons leading the Lady Colonels. Coach Anderson remains one of the favorite coaches I have covered in a long sports writing career. He was very patient with me as a young sports writer. When I saw him recently he was the same friendly coach Anderson. He threw his arm around me and had some very nice things to say to an old sports writer. The timing of this win for the Lady Colonels could not happen at a better time or to a more deserving coach.

As I contemplated the Clay County loss, I tried to decide which of the two major upsets was bigger. Clay County girls losing or the Corbin boys falling in their first-round game to Middlesboro. 

You could vote for the Clay County loss because they were the heavy favorite and a four-time defending champion. My vote would go with Middlesboro-Corbin. The Redhounds came into the tournament as the hottest team. Corbin opened a big early lead on a Middlesboro team they had beaten by 17 on Jan. 8. The Yellow Jackets were in a five-game post Christmas losing streak at the time. The Middlesboro squad, led by five seniors, did get some quality wins after shaking off that losing streak.

Corbin has now lost in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament two straight years. In 2011, they lost to Bell County in overtime of the championship game.

Despite Monday’s loss, this has to rank among the best coaching jobs by Corbin’s Tony Pietrowski, who had to replace a lot from last year’s team. Corbin ended the regular season with the region’s best record and was on a nine-game winning streak when they lost. 

What we have left is a boys’ tournament all four teams can win. Harlan County has to be favored because it is their home court. Clay County is 1A because they are Clay County and arguably playing the best. North Laurel grades slightly lower because of their up and down season, but pretty sure no one wants to play them now. Middlesboro? Middlesboro coach Russell Thompson pointed out to his team that North Laurel won the tournament last year as a district runner-up. They believe it now and that makes them dangerous.

I give an edge to Corbin in the girls’ tournament. Granted I have not seen Harlan County play this year and the Lady Redhounds only beat them by one in Corbin.

But the way this tournament has gone, don’t count anyone out just yet. Corbin or Harlan County could lose before this column comes out.