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First Region in golden age of boys basketball coaching

By Mike Stunson mstunson@paducahsun.com

T

here's a reason why First Region boys basketball teams have enjoyed recent successes at the KHSAA State Tournament. Yes, the region hosts some of the best basketball players in the state. But it's the coaching that has propelled teams in recent years to great heights.

There are no days off in First Region basketball, because on almost any given night, a coach will go up against another top-notch coach -- one who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team, with a precise gameplan of how to take away what makes that team stand out.

Here in the First Region, it's all about adjusting. With the quality of the coaches in the region, teams have to constantly switch up plays, terminology and even scheme. Because once one of the coaches has you figured out, it's over.

"You look down the sideline and nine times out of 10 you see a very good coach who is just as competitive as you," Calloway County head coach Terry Birdsong said.

So is the life in the First Region, where because of the longevity of coaches' tenures, they tend to know the ins and outs.

Birdsong, McCracken County's Burlin Brower, Carlisle County's Brian O'Neill and Hickman County's Jimmy Long are among the mainstays in the region -- coaches who have spent the better part of two decades or more coaching in the area.

Then there's Marshall County's Gus Gillespie, St. Mary's Greg Overstreet and Mayfield's Chris Guhy -- all of whom have been at their respective schools for at least 10 years.

Throw in Murray's Bart Flener and Graves County's Josh Frick, who both have enjoyed successes in their first two years coaching locally, and it's a gauntlet of a region just at the coaching level.

"It makes it tougher on your prep because sometimes you have to rename plays, switch things up a little bit," O'Neill said. "We have plays we don't show until the postseason because coaches are so prepared. If you don't make adjustments, you'll get stuck and not get those wins you got early in the season."

Coaches getting the best out of each other has led to a carry-over effect to the players. A First Region team has won at the state tournament four years in a row, which has not been done since the 1970s.

Making that feat even more impressive is that it has been done with four different schools -- Murray, Calloway, McCracken and Graves.

Before that, Marshall won region two years in a row and before that it was Tilghman. In the last seven years, six schools have been crowned as First Region champions.

"It's hard to get back (to state), and it's even harder to win back to back because you have even more of a bull's- eye," Birdsong said. "Even with a lot of kids back, it's still tough. We have a lot more parity every year and any given year, the top teams in our region can play with any region."

You don't have to look far to find a dynasty in west Kentucky, as Hopkinsville won four straight Second Region championships from 2012-15.

That's almost unheard of in the First Region, as it hasn't been since 1987-89 when a team from the region made it to state even three years in a row -- that being done by Marshall County.

"With the coaching in the region, if a coach has the talent to win they usually do," O'Neill said. "You have to have good talent to win, but good coaching to mold that talent into winners and we have that here."

And in a region where so many of the same athletic teams dominate every year -- McCracken baseball, softball, tennis and volleyball; Mayfield football, and Tilghman track and field -- there has been one constant, parity in boys basketball.

"I can't imagine there being another dynasty anytime soon," Brower said. "Nobody dominates First Region basketball. Nobody ever goes three years in a row. It just doesn't happen."

Very rarely does the First Region have the best team in the state -- no school in the region still in operation has won the state title -- but they're always sure to be a tough out.

"We have proven we can win at the highest level," Birdsong said. "Other regions may have better athletes, but when McCracken beat Wayne County (in 2014) and when we beat Knott County Central (in 2015), they were both top-five teams. When we went with Graves in 2013 we had Hopkinsville tied late. It's one of those things where we are all the same type of team -- there isn't one team with the dominant athletes.

"In our region we're dealing with pretty much the same kid, so scouting and gameplanning you have to find a way to separate yourself," Birdsong added.

Strong coaching is nothing new in the region. Tilghman has had its fair share of elite coaches, most recently Brad Stieg and Billy Chumbler, with Alan Hatcher leading teams at Graves and Marshall.

But what there is now is coaching depth, enough to make any coach sweat on a given night.

"One thing we get across the state, you won't find a group of coaches as prepared as First Region coaches," O'Neill said. "It goes to show the work the coaches put in, as well as assistant coaches."

Not making it any easier is the constant pressure coaches feel to win their district and later the region. With a constant desire from the higher-ups to hang up a banner in the gymnasium, that's enough motivation for any coach.

"You have to do good to keep your job because if you don't you will lose your job," Brower said. "Even those smaller schools, if you aren't winning and putting a good product on the court, they won't stand for it."

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