In his first season as boys’ basketball coach at Ballard High School, Chris Renner, then 32, took the Bruins to the Sweet 16 and won the 1999 state championship.
Talk about setting the bar high.
“I remember talking to one of the parents,” Renner said, “and they were congratulating me, and I was like, ‘I hope they don’t expect this every year,’ ” Renner said.
Renner is now in his 15th season at Ballard and his teams’ appearances in the state tournament have become fairly regular.
Ballard is in the Sweet 16 for the sixth time under Renner and will face Johnson Central (22-10) in a first-round game Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
At No. 2 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, Ballard (29-4) is the highest-ranked team in the field.
Renner has come a long way since that first Sweet 16 trip, coaching his 400th win at Ballard this season. He says he’s more patient than in 1999.
“Sometimes my actions don’t show that I’ve matured much,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the competitiveness coming out. As you get older you put life into perspective. Since ’99, I have two kids now (Avery, 11, and Mason, 9). As a parent, your perspective on life changes and you’re a little more understanding.”
Junior guard Quentin Snider said Renner hasn’t lost any intensity.
“In practice, he gets on us,” Snider said, “but he pushes you to make you better.
Renner’s first job as a head coach was at Southwest Christian during the 1991-92 season. He coached two seasons at Waggener (1996-98) before taking the Ballard job. His career record is 461-122, including 409-95 at Ballard.
Of all the current boys’ basketball coaches in Jefferson County, only Pleasure Ridge Park’s Dale Mabrey (32nd year) has more tenure.
Renner’s first Ballard team — led by Brandon Bender, Mac Wilkinson and Will Partin — beat Scott County 71-47 in the state championship.
During that Sweet 16, Renner beat two coaches — North Hardin’s Ron Bevars and Scott County’s Billy Hicks — who now rank among the winningest in Kentucky history.
“I don’t think there was any intimidation, but there was a big sense of respect,” Renner said. “I was still trying to learn. What better way to learn than to go against those guys with so much history.”
In four trips to the Sweet 16 since 1999 — coming in 2003, ’05, ’07 and ’10 — Renner’s teams have returned to the championship game three times, losing each one.
The Bruins’ last trip ended in a 73-61 loss to Shelby Valley in the championship game. Renner said the 1-3 record in state finals doesn’t bother him.
“If I had never won a championship, they might hurt me more,” he said. “In every season and every championship, there’s another side to the story. There’s another coach. There’s another team. It just so happens that the last three times we’ve been there, we were the team that didn’t win.”
Ballard has a solid shot to win this year behind the trio of Snider (19.6 ppg, 4.5 apg), junior Kelan Martin (19.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and senior Lavone Holland (14.1 ppg). The other starters are senior Dontez Byrd, the Bruins’ top on-ball defender, and Malik Dow.
Holland is the only Ballard senior who was on the varsity team as a freshman during the Sweet 16 run in 2010.
Renner said he’s looking forward to watching how his players handle the Sweet 16 experience.
“The first time you go as coach, you’re really trying to absorb the experience for yourself,” Renner said. “The next times I’ve gone, I’m watching my assistant coaches who haven’t been there and the players. It’s neat to see.”