Blanton carries on a 52nd District tradition at this year’s tournament


Chris Jones

Luther Blanton, the official scorekeeper for multiple district tournaments through the years, attended the 52nd DIstrict Tournament on Friday at Harlan. It was the 64th straight tournament he attended, going back to his freshman year at Wallins HIgh School in 1958.

By John Henson, From The Sidelines

While the Harlan Green Dragons ended a streak of 21 years without a 52nd District championship in this year’s tournament, Wallins resident Luther Blanton kept his personal streak alive by attending the girls championship game Friday at Harlan High School.
Blanton witnessed his 64th straight tournament during a season in which he was rarely able to attend games due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
While he watched this year’s tournament from the bottom row of the visitors bleachers, Blanton had a much better seat during most tournament games through the years. Blanton’s streak began as a Wallins High School freshman in the 1957-58 season as the scorekeeper for coach Jim Howard and the Purple Devils. The tournament was played at Benham High School that season and featured 11 Harlan County teams in the days before integration.
Blanton enjoyed the job so much he kept it through his high school graduation and beyond. He didn’t stop when Wallins High School closed in 1966, moving on to Cawood High School after a 17-month stint in the U.S. Army stationed in Panama. Blanton remembers he was home on leave during the 1967 tournament and was able to watch that season’s tournament.
After returning home, Blanton became the scorekeeper in the early years of James A. Cawood High School and was usually the official scorekeeper for the district tournament. After a stint at Harlan High School in the 1970s and early 1980s, Blanton returned to JACHS and kept the book for the Trojans until the school merged in 2008 with Evarts and Cumberland high schools to form Harlan County High School.
Blanton kept the book for coach Mike Jones during the first five years of the school’s existence, working his last game in the 2013 regional finals when Harlan County lost to Clay County at HCHS. He continued to attend games at HCHS and Harlan since ending a 50-plus year stint as a scorekeeper, usually sitting in the front row of Harlan County games just behind the scorers table where he was at home for many years at gyms around the 13th Region.
“It was great to be a part of so many district tournaments through the years, and I always enjoy being around the game, as well as the coaches and players,” Blanton said. “People have asked me about the best player I ever watched, and that is something I couldn’t answer because there were so many great ones through the years.”
While this was the 65th year for my old friend, Luther Blanton, I realized before this year’s tournament began that this would be my 50th straight of attending the 52nd District Tournament.
My family moved to Browning Acres in the fall of 1971 and I attended my first tournament in March of 1972 at Cawood High School within walking distance from home. That was in the middle of Ralph Roberts’ run of four straight district championships at Cumberland High School. I remember Larry Cockrel as the star of those teams.
Forrest Pearson led Lynch to district titles in 1974 and 1975, which was about the time that girls basketball began across Kentucky. The girls started playing in the 1974-75 season when the tournament was held at Harlan, and Lynch won its first and only girls district title.
John D. Wilson and the Cawood Trojans won the first of three straight 52nd District titles in 1976 with the tournament back at JACHS. It was the first ever district title for the Trojans with seniors David Parks, Mike Howard and Alan Vaughn leading the way. Cawood repeated the next two years with Greg Coldiron, Lynn Rhymer and Will Clem playing key roles. The Cawood girls and all-state guard Kim Kelley and future UK Lady Kat Lynette Lewis started a string of five straight district titles in 1976 and captured the first 13th Region championship in 1978 under coach Basil Mills
I was in high school myself when the 1980s began and was the co-sports editor of the Sword & Shield, Cawood High School’s student newspaper. My colleague on the sports staff was better known for his work on the court. Phil Cox was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1981 and led the Trojans to a district title and 13th Region runner-up finish before going on star at Vanderbilt. The district tournament that year was at Cumberland, and I remember getting there extremely early just to get a seat when Cawood and Harlan played in a showdown game the year after Harlan had made it to the 13th Region finals on a team led by Ronnie Morgan, Michael Rhodes, Jack Scalf and Lawrence Body. Cumberland ended Cawood’s run of girls district championships in 1981 as John Bond won the first of many titles as coach with Margaret Harris leading the way in 1981.
After a stint at Eastern Kentucky University, I returned home to work at the Harlan Daily Enterprise just in time to see all-stater Nick Sanford star for the Trojans, along with Harlan’s Jeff Miller and Cumberland’s Paul Gaffney. Some will argue that the mid 90s was the best era for 13th Region talent, but I’d give the edge to the mid 80s with players like Richie Farmer and Lawrence Buell, along with the Harlan County stars.
The Cumberland girls won regional titles in 1984 and 1986 as Nikki Snow and Monica Owens went on to play at LMU and Amy Morris at Cumberland College. Harlan won in 1987 as Debbie Hoskins earned all-state honors before signing with UK. The Lady Dragons won again in 1998 and 1999 under Doc Gray on teams led by Tiffany Hamm, Krissy Hatfield and Kristy Clem. The Lady Skins put together another great run in the 1990s, winning the first two All “A” Classic state titles on teams led by point guard Joey Morris and all-state center Lori Kluck. Bond led Cumberland to six straight district titles in the late 80s to mid 90s. Cawood won four straight district titles in the early 2000s with coach Bucky Burkhart, point guard Natasha Boggs and all-state forward Savanna Wynn.
Harlan, of course, took over on the boys side in the 1990s with Mr. Basketball Charles Thomas, along with all-staters Michael Jones, Todd Cox and Casey Lester leading the Dragons to multiple district titles that decade along with regional tournament championships in 1993, 1995 and 1996 under coach Mike Jones, who.still has the record for county victories as a coach in stints at Cawood, Harlan and Harlan County. The Dragons won their last district title of that era in 2000, led by all-stater William Fields, along with Gary Greer and Matt Anderson.
Cumberland broke through for its first regional title in 2003 under coach Bill Scott as Eddie Creech, the current HCHS football coach, and Matt Haynes helped the Redskins shock the region with a win over Rockcastle County in the finals at Whitley County High School. Cawood won district titles in 2001 and 2002, led by Brandon Tolliver and Paul Hearld, then again in 2004 and 2005 with Blake Hubbs earning all-state honors and coach Anthony Nolan winning five district titles in eight years.
Harlan County had its share of success since opening in 2008 with Mike Jones leading the Bears to the regional finals in 2013, with a team led by Tyler Brewer, Alex Sergent and Chad Massingill, then broke through for a regional title in 2017 under Michael Jones with Cameron Carmical, Treyce Spurlock and David Turner as seniors.
Harlan and Harlan County had some epic battles in girls basketball with Harlan, led by all-stater Jordan Brock and coach Derrick Akal, winning the region in 2016 and 2017 before the Lady Bears broke through in 2018 after finishing second the previous two years. Both Blair Green and Kaylea Gross earned all-state honors for HCHS and Debbie Hoskins Green became the first to win regional titles as both a player and a coach.
The Harlan County boys made it back to the regional finals last season and won the district title for the fifth time in six years under Jones. Harlan ended a 21-year district title drought this week with Akal and his son, Jordan, leading the Dragons back to the top.
There was no way to know when attending that first district tournament with my dad in 1972 that I would eventually have the honor of becoming something of a historian for the 52nd District. I remember thinking what a cool job writing sports must be when I would ride past the Enterprise offices downtown after a game at Harlan in the 1970s. It turns out, I was right.