The Johnson Central Golden Eagles was the talk of the 15th Region in the pre-season but setting in 2nd place with a 24-7 overall record some would say they didn't reach expectations this season. I would say to them folks that they are looking at a completely different team heading into the Region Tournament than they was even a week ago and if you are going to bet against this team, then you stand a great chance of losing your money. Johnson Central headed into the 57th District Tournament with a 22-7 record and even though the Golden Eagles produced another 20 win season many thought that it was the Tigers turn to take back the City of Paintsville.
In the 1st round of District the Golden Eagles was the favorite but Magoffin Co. had a shot in the dark because they had the 15th Region "Player of the Year" Brady Whitaker. The Hornets would play Central closer than expected but Johnson Central would still advance to the 2nd round with a 75-67 victory over Magoffin Co. That win set up the trilogy of the "Battle for Paintsville" and after splitting the two regular season meetings this game was sure to be one of the states most anticipated games this year. The 57th District Championship had an abundance of great story lines, you had two teams that are part of one of the Mountains biggest rivalries in the "Battle for Paintsville". You had high profile coaches on both sidelines with Paintsville being led by former UK player Landon Slone and Johnson Central would be led in by two coaches that led the Paintsville Tigers to a State Championship in 1996 in Head Coach Tommy McKenzie & Assistant Coach JR VanHoose. This game also had two of the most talented rosters in the state, it would be hard to find two teams that have a better starting five than these two programs.
The game didn't disappoint and neither did ticket sales, the gym was packed nearly two hours before tip and fans would spend the next hour buying tickets to sat in the cafeteria to watch the game on television. After filling the hallways, lunch room and gym the ticket booth would close 45 minutes before the game was even scheduled to start, leaving many fans having to listen to the game in their vehicles on the radio. The game went much like the Golden Eagles season has this year, Johnson Central started out kind of slow but they came out of the half on fire and stretched things out at the end. Coach Slone entered this game determined not to let Isaiah May beat him and the Tigers done a great job defending him the entire game but that left them vulnerable in other matchups on the floor. Cory VanHoose done what he wanted, when he wanted and Paintsville had no answer, VanHoose led the game in scoring with 29pts. Gabe Ferrell would come out of the locker room in the 2nd half and torch the Tigers from downtown, Ferrell hit four 3's and ended the game with 17. Then Jacob Rice does what Jacob Rice does, he run his team like a fine tuned orchestra and made big plays throughout the game, he ended the game with 16pts, 7reb, 6ast. The Golden Eagles continued their dominance of the 57th District and came out on top with a 69-56 victory over rival Paintsville, the win gave the Golden Eagles their 4th consecutive 57th District title.
This Golden Eagles team has had an outstanding season thus far but are just now reaching full potential, Johnson Central is running like a well oiled machine heading into the 15th Region Tournament, they are clicking on all cylinders. With a great coaching staff and a starting lineup that has 5-6 different players that can lead the team in scoring on any giving night, this is the team that should be one of the house favorites this week at the Expo. Another thing this team has is an elite talent in Isaiah May, May is widely re-guarded as one of the Mountains top players, he has the attention of a lot of college recruiters and if you go watch him play you will understand why. The Golden Eagles also have a point guard that has more experience than any Golden Eagle player ever, Jacob Rice broke Braxton Blair's record for games played on Friday night, he has now played in 140 varsity games. Cory VanHoose is a player that has a ton of different tools in his tool box, he can drop 30+ with ease, lock down the other teams best player or be the team enforcer. VanHoose is a relentless defender and never slows down, he is that irreplaceable piece because he does so much. Johnson Central's "Big 3" is the most talented trio in the Region when you add experience in the equation but that isn't all this team brings to the table. This team also has the most depth of any squad in the tournament. Gabe Ferrell & John King both can step up to lead this team in scoring if needed, plus Bryson Hackney is the ultimate team player, he is very unselfish and would rather lead the team in rebounds than scoring.
The 15th Region is as open as it has been in a while, you have four teams that should be heavy favorites. My personal opinion is Pikeville and Johnson Central are the two teams you want to bet on if you put a high value on experience, they have deep benches, well coached and experience. Shelby Valley and Paintsville are the two teams with the highest ceilings, they have elite talent and can beat any team you put in front of them but it's young talent. Then you add a couple of teams that can either get hot shooting or have players that can cause matchup problems, that gives you 6-7 teams that have a shot to win games at Region. This will be a fun week of games no matter who you are rooting for and if you are a fan of basketball you will want to be at the Expo Center starting tomorrow night.
Johnson Central vs Prestonsburg (Feb.25th 6:30pm)
Phelps vs Shelby Valley (Feb. 25th 8pm)
Floyd Central vs Paintsville (Feb. 26th 6:30pm)
Pikeville vs Pike Central (Feb. 26th 8pm)