Steve Helton has worn two prominent hats in the Scott County High School athletic department for about six months, and Monday night's “Cardinal Mania” was probably the first major test of changing that figurative headgear on the fly.
Helton has added the duties of athletic director to his two-decade title as girls' basketball coach, combining those jobs in the same off-season that the district divided one high school into two.
Formerly known as “Meet the Cards,” the annual showcase gave a packed house its first impression of what the new era will be like for the time-honored SC girls' and boys' programs.
In the same way he stubbornly won't let his team live off its reputation s two-time defending 11th Region champions, Helton wasn't about to let the annual Election Night Eve exhibition rest on its laurels.
“You're always looking for ways to improve, to create interest and to showcase Scott County High School,” Helton said. “That's where I'm at right now. You're not going to do it all in one year, but it's definitely an opportunity for the community to come in and see all the great things.”
A jam-packed itinerary was busier than ever. In addition to the two varsity intra-squad scrimmages, there was a boys' freshman game, exhibitions involving all three middle schools, cheer and dance performances, and introductions of the archery, bowling and wrestling teams.
House lights were dimmed and strobe lights and fog machines kicked into gear (temporarily, at least, until they ran out of steam) as announcers Kevin Conrad and Bill Holland introduced the varsity hoop squads. On a smaller scale it was reminiscent of what fans might see at UK or EKU's meet the team nights.
Helton acknowledged that the new unspoken competition between Scott County and Great Crossing — both on the court, and behind the scenes as future students make their decisions where to enroll — are inspiration for the new wrinkles.
“Some people have said, 'Well, you've always done it this way,' and I have a lot of respect for that,” Helton said. “But it's kind of like coaching, too. I used to coach this way, but now we've had to adjust how we coach these kids. Like it or not, agree with it or not, there's change. And with change, there's always some resistance.
“It's just like in college. They say if you don't have a crane on your campus, you're behind. Well, if we're not looking for ways to showcase what's going on here, we're falling behind.”
Of course, the ultimate attraction will be the product on the court, and Helton's latest edition of the Lady Cardinals is talent-laden as ever, at least at the top of the roster.
Malea Williams, a 6-foot-4 senior with 14 NCAA Division I scholarship offers and counting, provided the jaw-dropping highlight of the evening. As the final seconds of the girls' exhibition ticked away, classmate and fellow college prospect Morgan DeFoor (committed to Morehead State) bounced a soft, child-sized ball toward Williams.
She cupped it in her right palm at the top of the 3-point circle, took several long strides through the paint, soared to the rim and dunked, to the delight of the crowd.
“Just trying to spice it up and have a little more fun. Right there at the end with Malea, in 20 years we've never had a chance to do anything like that. It just doesn't happen,” Helton said. “She's a special player, and to allow her to showcase her skills and have some fun … tonight was all fun. I just wish we could have played a little better.”
Williams, DeFoor and Emma Price all made their share of shots. Kenady Tompkins, a junior, gives SC another returning starter and six-footer with D1 interest.
Scott County also picked up no fewer than three key transfers over the summer: Trenyce Kenney (Harrison County), Kennon Owens (Montgomery County) and Maleiyah Moore (Somerset).
The Lady Cards will be young in places, however. Helton said his team “still doesn't know how to practice” is behind the level of cohesiveness he would prefer to see the first week of November.
“We looked nervous, and we did look young. Hopefully will grow over the next three months here,” Helton said. “I'd rather have the target (of being defending champions and one of the region favorites) than the alternative. It's an honor and it's privilege. We've had a lot of kids go through our program who have allowed that to happen. We're still Scott County.”
Dunks provided the customary resounding drum beat before the boys' scrimmage, which had the most glaring missing piece of the night. Gone is Billy Hicks, who retired after 25 SC seasons as a two-time state champion and the only coach in state history with more than 1,000 wins.
The rest of the staff returns with Tim Glenn at the helm, and the Cards' brain trust won't try to reinvent the wheel.
“We've got a brand of basketball that we want to keep the tradition, because we've seen it's a good way,” Glenn said.
Seven seniors graduated, including all five starters. Most of them were key, four-year contributors.
The pace and performance in Monday's exhibition looked much the same, even if the faces have almost completely changed .Terrin Hamilton, a 6-foot-6 senior, has visibly filled out and looks to be an all-state caliber player. Elias Richardson, Aaron Leake and Chase Grigsby all showed the ability to fill it up.
The Cards will gain no fewer than four reinforcements when football season ends, and the sophomore class is deep and talented.
“I told the guys it's kind a of a new era, and you talk about things being new, but it's really not. The expectations are the same,” Glenn said. “The people that were here expect us to be a good team, and they expect you to play hard. They don't expect you to make every shot, but they expect you to play hard. If you don't play hard, you're not going to win, not with out brand.”
Other than a few minor accommodations — SC won't travel to the Beach Ball Classic, for example — the Cardinals haven't watered down the schedule.
“We'll be tested very much early. I kind of looked through it, and there's not really a cream puff there. It will make us better,” Glenn said. “There's a lot of different weapons and a lot of different guys that are going to step up and produce points for us, but again, we're going to be as good as we guard. We've got a little bit of length, and we've got a little physicality,
“They've had to wait,” he added. “They're good players. It was no knock against them at all. I'm excited for them that it's their turn.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.