For generations of Fern Creek High School boys basketball fans, Thursday will mark the end of an 88-year wait to see their Tigers play in the state tournament.
For the current players, Thursday’s game will mark a two-month wait to avenge their last loss.
Fern Creek (33-2) – No. 5 in the state in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings – will meet No. 9 Hopkinsville (28-6) at noon Thursday in a highly anticipated first-round game of the 100th annual Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
Fern Creek opened in 1923 and began playing varsity basketball during the 1929-30 season. Last week’s 49-45 victory over Doss clinched the program’s first regional championship.
“I guess it’s the equivalent of getting the bid for the NCAA Tournament,” coach James Schooler said. “It’s been very exciting. We’re dancing in March. And with it being the first time ever, we get to reap the benefits of that opportunity.”
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Junior guard Ahmad Price said the attention around the community and school “has been crazy.”
“We’ve been getting mad love from the teachers and stuff and around the community,” Price said. “Every time we go out they’re like, ‘Win state. Bring one home for us.’ It’s a lot of motivation.”
Fern Creek also will have plenty of motivation Thursday in facing Hopkinsville. The teams met Jan. 7 in the First Security New Years Bash at Muhlenberg County. Fern Creek took early leads of 8-0 and 17-10, but Hopkinsville rallied for a 78-58 victory.
Fans provided several excuses after the loss, as Fern Creek had played a tough game against 24th District rival Bullitt East the night before and faced a long bus trip to Muhlenberg County. Price also was battling bronchitis.
“It wasn’t the bus ride; it wasn’t the Bullitt East game,” Schooler said. “It was simply a point in our season where the kids were still trying to buy into the full system. We started out the game very aggressive … and then Hoptown started playing like who they are. They’re a very gritty, hard-nosed team and very well-coached. They stuck to their game plan.”
Fern Creek quickly turned things around, winning its first Louisville Invitational Tournament championship the following week. Since the loss to Hopkinsville, Fern Creek has won 19 straight games.
“That was the breaking point for us knowing that even though we have a good team that we can’t just come out and take teams for granted,” senior guard/forward Chance Moore said. “We were blowing them out, and then we started taking stuff for granted and thinking we could play around with them. I didn’t think Hoptown would do it, but they came out hard.”
Hopkinsville reached the Sweet 16 four straight years from 2012-15 and is back after missing out last season. Hopkinsville features three players who score in double-figures – juniors Jalen Johnson (17.7 ppg), Stephen “Shorty” Cager (15.9 ppg) and senior C.J. Henangan (10.5 ppg).
Hopkinsville coach Tim Haworth said he’s not putting much stock in the result of the first meeting.
“I know how good (Fern Creek coach James) Schooler is, and I know how hard Fern Creek plays,” Haworth said. “That was just one game when they didn’t play well and we did play well. I think you throw it out the window. We’re both really good. I think it will be a war, and we’ll have to play well to win.”
Schooler expects his team to play better in the rematch but did note his rough history against Hopkinsville. Fern Creek is 0-3 against Hopkinsville during Schooler’s four-season tenure, falling 65-63 in the coach’s first season, 88-86 in his second year and dropping the 20-point decision earlier this season.
It was enough for Schooler to declare Hopkinsville his favorite to win the tournament if his team doesn’t.
“I would like to correct that,” Schooler said of history against Haworth. “I love Coach Haworth. I’ve seen him grind. We’re similar: the black and orange and the Tigers. If one Tiger can’t win, I’d be happy to see the other Tigers win. …
“But if we get past Hopkinsville, then you’re settled in for one night. Most tournaments we play in, once we get one night in we’re ready to go.”
“We know this isn’t the end,” junior guard Anthony Wales added. We’re just trying to bring home a state championship.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.