JENKINS, Ky. – Ask anyone who lives in this southeastern Kentucky town – located at the foot of Pine Mountain near the Virginia border – to name its most notable people or moments in history, and you’re likely to get a perplexed look.
You might hear about Phil Greer, the Jenkins High School graduate who went on to play football at the University of Kentucky in the 1960s and now is CEO of a company that owns several restaurants, including 44 Cheddar’s. Or maybe Jenkins-born Gary Stewart, a country musician whose hit “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” topped the charts in 1975.
And as far as moments, well, not many have forgotten when Bethlehem Steel closed shop in 1988 in this self-proclaimed “City Built on Coal” and left it without a coal-mining job. A town that reached about 10,000 residents in the 1940s, Jenkins now has about 2,200.
But the faces of those local residents will brighten when given the chance to talk about Whitney Creech, the 18-year-old blonde with the braces, the unbelievable scoring average (50.9 points per game is not a typo) and the smooth left-handed jumper that has given her the title of “Leading Scorer in Kentucky High School Basketball History.”
No, that prestigious spot in the record book doesn’t belong to a girl from Louisville or Lexington or any of those other bigger cities where kids look up to buildings instead of mountains.
The spot belongs to Whitney Creech, the pride of Jenkins High School, enrollment of 156.
“It’s a whole lot of excitement at a time there’s not a lot going on,” Jenkins Mayor Todd DePriest said. “It’s a big deal. With the downturn in coal and all the bad news, this is a little bit of good news in the middle of that.”
A 5-foot-9 guard who has signed with Western Kentucky University, Creech has created excitement around the state with her scoring prowess.
On Tuesday she scored 71 points – tied for third-most ever by a Kentucky girl – in a 90-87 overtime victory at Paintsville to pass former Highlands standout Jaime Walz as the leading scorer in state history. Creech followed that Thursday with a 64-point performance in an 86-82 loss at Perry County Central, eclipsing the 5,000-point plateau and putting her at 5,021 for her career.
MORE COVERAGE | Creech scores 64, surpasses 5,000 points for career
She’s scored 3,972 points since her freshman season, which is the number recognized by the National Federation of State High School Associations. That currently ranks her 13th all-time in the nation, and she still has at least eight games remaining in her career. Adrian McGowen of Goodrich, Texas, set the national record of 5,424 career points from 2003-06.
Creech’s scoring average this season leads the nation and is on pace to break the state record of 49.6, set by McDowell’s Geri Grigsby in 1977. Creech also leads the state in rebounding this season at 15 per game.
She’s not a prolific 3-point shooter, hitting just 25 of 106 attempts (23.6 percent) this season. Creech gets most of her points via drives to the basket or pull-up jumpers. She made just one 3-pointer in the 71-point outing against Paintsville.
“If she can get in the lane, it’s automatic,” Paintsville coach Mark Baldwin said. “You have to get her to pick her dribble up before she gets in the lane, or she’s going to score or you’re going to foul her every time. Every time.”
Or as Jenkins coach Ashley Addington described it, “She plays like a boy. Her movements are so smooth. She can navigate through any kind of defense. She knows what she’s going to do a step ahead of everyone else.”
So how does this girl from a small town become a legend? It’s a bit of a mystery.
Neither of her parents played basketball. Her father, Dwight, is the principal at Carr Creek Elementary. Her mother, Janice, is a Jenkins High grad whose grandfather and father were both coal miners. Whitney’s sister, Erica, wasn’t an athlete and is a senior at Morehead State. An uncle, Bill Hurst, played basketball at Jenkins and one season at Alice Lloyd College.
Those who know her credit a gift from God and hard work. She began playing pee-wee basketball in kindergarten and shocked many when she was bumped up to Jenkins’ varsity team as a fifth-grader.
“It was cute because the uniforms and the travel suits didn’t hardly fit,” Janice Creech said. “You couldn’t sew them because they’re school property, so we’d have to pin them to get them to hold up. The shorts would be way down and the shirts too big. Of course you were nervous she’d get hurt playing with the bigger girls.”
Whitney Creech scored her first five varsity points while playing in two games as a fifth-grader. She still remembers the one field goal she made that season against Cordia.
“It was a pretty close game, and they put me in,” she said. “I don’t remember if we were in foul trouble or what. But I hit a big 3. I remember that one really well. Everybody was talking about this little fifth-grader coming in and hitting a deep 3. That one was pretty cool.”
Creech began starting for the varsity team at the end of her seventh-grade season and then faced what she said was one of the biggest decisions of her life.
If she was going to transfer to a bigger school – as many advised her to do – she was going to do it before her eighth-grade year, perhaps to nearby Letcher County Central or Perry County Central. After all, she’d heard her whole life that those schools could offer better opportunities.
“A lot of people were telling me, ‘You’re not going to win a state championship. You can’t get to region. You can’t do this. You’re not going to get any college offers. Your school is too small,’” Creech said. “All these things were just kind of downing Jenkins.
“Me and my family talked and prayed about it, and we felt like the best decision was to stay here. I think it’s turned out for the best. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
Creech scored the 1,000th point of her varsity career as an eighth-grader and has been on a scoring binge ever since. She averaged 30.2 points as a freshman, 34.4 as a sophomore and a nation-best 42.0 last season.
It’s an accomplishment recognized on a sign as one enters town: “Home of Whitney Creech 2015 National High School Field Goal Scoring Champion.” Another sign down the road from the school has kept a running tally of Creech’s point total all season.
But the success hasn’t come without its share of skepticism. Some point to Jenkins’ 11-12 record this season and the fact the Cavaliers haven’t qualified for the 14th Region Tournament during Creech’s career. With Jenkins set to host the 53rd District Tournament later this month, it’s a goal Creech said is No. 1 on her list for this season.
She’s also, by necessity, a high-volume shooter, taking 56.5 percent of her team’s shots this season. As a matter of comparison, Sheldon Clark’s Hope Lafferty – the state’s No. 2 scorer at 26.9 points per game – has taken 44.6 percent of her team’s shots this season.
In Tuesday’s game at Paintsville, Creech attempted 49 of the Cavaliers’ 69 shots (71 percent). While others might be bothered by those numbers, Addington said she and the team’s other players aren’t.
“There’s no jealousy because she’s from a small town,” Addington said. “These girls grew up together from kindergarten on. They’ve played every sport. They’ve had to, or we wouldn’t have programs in our small school. … They’re just like sisters. If one person gets an accomplishment, it’s their accomplishment, too.”
Perhaps one example of the team’s feelings toward Creech came at Paintsville on Tuesday, when Addington was forced to call a timeout early in the first quarter because one of Creech’s shoelaces broke. By the time Creech got to the bench, a teammate had removed one of her own shoelaces and given it to the star player.
Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard knows there are questions about how Creech’s game will translate to the college level but said she isn’t concerned.
“If you can score the basketball, you can score the basketball,” said Clark-Heard, who won a recruiting battle with Middle Tennessee State and East Tennessee State, among several others. “It doesn’t matter where you’re playing and who you’re playing against. There are a lot of players that could play at that level and not be able to score as many points as she has.
“We looked at how she would be a fit for us, and I know her worth ethic. That’s why I wasn’t afraid. I feel she’ll get in the gym and do whatever it takes to be successful at this level.”
It appears Creech is not adverse to hard work. Addington tells the story about Creech showing up at school at 6 a.m. during the summer to lift weights before going to her job as a baby-sitter.
On Wednesday morning, just hours after becoming the state’s all-time leading scorer, Creech was on a bus to the University of Pikeville to take courses in public speaking and the New Testament. She’s also a standout softball player, playing second base and becoming “the best hitter on our team,” Addington said.
The hard work also has made her one of the top contenders for Kentucky’s Miss Basketball award this season. She and Elizabethtown’s Erin Boley, a McDonald’s All-American, are considered by many to be the front-runners.
“It’s awesome just to be considered,” Creech said. “There are a lot of great players in the state. If I won it, it would mean a lot to get it. The coaches vote, so it would mean a lot that your competitors would vote for you and think you’re the best player in the state.”
Best player in the state hailing from tiny Jenkins, Kentucky? That would definitely give the people here something to smile about.
“A kid like this who has grown up in our district has put a positive light back on our town,” Addington said. “I can’t imagine anybody else doing it but her. She completely deserves everything she’s getting.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
CREECH ON TOP
Kentucky’s career scoring leaders in girls high school basketball (source: Kentucky High School Athletic Association record book):
1. Whitney Creech, Jenkins 5,021
2. Jaime Walz, Highlands 4,948
3. Geri Grigsby, McDowell 3,952
4. Kim Mays, Knox Central 3,726
5. Carolyn Alexander, Hazard 3,469
SCORING BY YEARS
Whitney Creech’s point totals for each season of her varsity career at Jenkins High School:
Fifth grade – 5 (2.5 ppg)
Sixth grade – 93 (4.4 ppg)
Seventh grade – 375 (14.4 ppg)
Eighth grade – 576 (21.3 ppg)
Freshman – 754 (30.2 ppg)
Sophomore – 998 (34.4 ppg)
Junior – 1,050 (42.0 ppg)
Senior – 1,170 (50.9 ppg)
Career – 5,021 (28.2 ppg)