As the top-ranked team among the 279 Kentucky boys' high school basketball teams competing for one state title, the Scott County (Georgetown, Ky.) Cardinals are expected to bring home no less than their second state championship trophy in three years in a few weeks from Rupp Arena in nearby Lexington.
The Cardinals' playoff opener on Monday night did little to dissuade anyone that Scott County isn't up to the challenge. Its District 42 semifinal against Sayre resulted in a 111-41 victory. That advanced the Cardinals (25-3) into next week's eight-team Region 11 tournament.
Rick Bolus has been a close follower of high school basketball in Kentucky and surrounding states for more than 30 years. The publisher of High Potential Basketball Recruiting Service minces no words when talking about Scott County and the state championship.
"It's theirs to lose," he said.
Longtime Scott County coach Billy Hicks, the state's winningest active coach at 729, claims immunity to such talk. That's whether it comes from a recruiting expert or a fan on the streets of Georgetown, located about 15 miles north of Lexington up I-75.
"I don't hit the coffee shops," said Hicks, winner of two state titles in his previous 14 seasons at Scott County.
And he wants his players to share that mindset.
"We try to build a fence around the team," he said.
Indeed, these Cardinals don't appear fazed by the pressure. Monday night's win was Scott County's 21st consecutive. The Cardinals average winning by more than 20 points a game and have lost only once this season against in-state competition, to Holmes High (Covington, Ky.) in mid-December by five points.
They have weapons inside and out. Richie Phares, the 6-foot-8 senior post, leads the team in scoring (18.1) and rebounding (8.8) and, according to Hicks, is the state's best player within 15 feet of the basket. Dakotah Euton is a 6-8 junior forward who averages 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds but also sneaks outside to average two three-pointers per game. Leading the perimeter attack are junior guards Chad Jackson (6-4) and Ge-Lawn Guyn (6-2), also scoring in double figures.
"They can all shoot, and they can all handle the ball," Hicks said.
While there are no enrollment-related classifications in Kentucky high school basketball, Scott County's enrollment of about 2,000 for grades 9-12 puts it in the state's highest classification for football, Class 6A. Georgetown and surrounding communities in the county are a destination for many folks in and around Kentucky looking for work either in Lexington or in town at a Toyota plant that opened in the mid-1980s.
And people have come from near and far and joined the Scott County basketball program recently. Those three starting juniors transferred into the program -- Guyn before his sophomore season and Euton and Jackson last summer.
Euton and Jackson both left Rose Hill Christian (Ashland, Ky.), where they averaged 20 points each as sophomores. Going into this season, Bolus rated Euton as the state's No. 1 college prospect regardless of class and Jackson No. 3. Euton has already committed to the University of Kentucky. Schools reportedly recruiting Jackson include Kentucky, Louisville, Indiana and West Virginia.
On the Cardinal bench, 6-2 junior Austin Flannery is also a transfer.
"That's just Kentucky," Hicks said of the transfers. "If you look at the top schools in the area, there probably isn't one that's worth a hill of beans that doesn't have a transfer. Probably every school in the top 20 [in the state] has a transfer."
The transfers of Euton and Jackson, who were also AAU teammates, grabbed the attention of much of the state's basketball community. The commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, Brigid DeVries, initially determined Euton and Jackson couldn't receive waivers from the state rule requiring a transfer to sit out a season at his new school.
A written statement from the KHSAA cited two reasons for her decision. One was statements made by Eaton's father, Clay, that indicated to DeVries that the move was made to play basketball for Scott County. That would violate the association rule regarding moving for athletic reasons. The second was recent transfers of other AAU teammates to Scott County.
The families of the two players took their cases to the last stage of the state transfer process, an appearance before the KHSAA Board of Control, in August. After a hearing officer recommended each player be allowed to play immediately, none of the 15 board members voted against the recommendation.
In each case, Hicks said, the most important factor in the successful waiver was that the family had already moved into Scott County's attendance zone. The first of nine exceptions listed by the KHSAA for allowing a transfer to play immediately is a bona fide change in residence.
Hicks said Jackson moved first, for family reasons. Scott Count offered a program tailored to Jackson's sibling. The Eutons moved after the business where Clay Euton worked closed, and he found work in Lexington.
According to the association's most recent statistics made available last summer, for the 2006-07 school year, 74 percent of the state transfers were allowed to play immediately.
Steve Wright, the basketball coach at South Laurel High (London, Ky.), said he's familiar with transfer policies in other states, and says of Kentucky's, "Our rules are vague and are taken advantage of on a daily basis. In defense [of the KHSAA], it costs a lot of money to enforce."
Wright said if he brought multiple transfers into his program, "The locals would be loading up their shotguns. They want to see the local kids play."
Jerry Klaiber is the first-year athletic director at Rose Hill, a small private school located near the West Virginia line. He said Euton and Jackson were top-notch students last year in his world history class and that the school wished them well at Scott County.
"Out here, if we have [NCAA] Division I players, we're just not going to keep 'em," said Klaiber, who said he succeeded Euton's mother, Pam, as Rose Hill's AD.
Said David Henley, the basketball coach at Holmes High across the Ohio River from Cincinnati: "I'm sure in the rural areas, where there's no industry and no jobs, it frustrates them. Scott County has that big Toyota plant in Georgetown. In Louisville and Lexington, it's the same, and here in northern Kentucky. Kids are coming and going from here all the time.
"Legitimate transfers get a stigma. We had two kids that went here for elementary school and middle school. Then they had to move in with an uncle in Cincinnati because of a family issue. They got things worked out, moved back to Covington. There was no recruiting involved, but they're considered transfers and there's a little stigma attached to us."
Elden May, spokesman for the KHSAA, indicated member schools are satisfied with the transfer policy.
"It seems to work well with minimal complaint," he wrote. "There's been no push to change it."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.