INEZ, Ky. (LEX 18) — The headlines from Martin County the past several years have been about the water woes, declining population and coal jobs leaving town.
The people who remain have persevered, and they're celebrating this week after the Martin County High School boys basketball team punched a ticket to the Sweet 16 on Monday night.
"See you at Rupp. That's awesome," said Superintendent Larry James.
"Awesome. It's a great feeling," said junior Trey James.
"It feels amazing. It feels crazy to be able to go to Rupp," said freshman Parker Davis.
Just like many eastern Kentucky counties, high school basketball is the heartbeat of the community. The old Inez High School captured state championships in 1941 and 1954.
After the Martin County high schools consolidated in the 1970's, Sheldon Clark High School made it to the Sweet 16 in 1983. Until Monday night, fans had to wait 37 long years for a return trip.
"I was a regional runner-up. My older son, Dylan, was a regional runner-up in 2013," said Larry James.
The county built a new high school in August 2019, and it was renamed Martin County High School. After all those close calls, this team finally broke through with a 65-61 win over Lawrence County to capture the 15th Region Championship.
"A new high school. A new name. We're creating history for Martin County," said Melissa Phelps, the county attorney.
"Just do whatever it took for us to win," said sophomore Brady Dingess.
"It means everything to us, you know. We haven't made the regional tournament in my four years of high school ball. To go there and win the thing, it's awesome," said senior Braxton Maynard.
"I had never won a game in the regional tournament, so it feels good," said senior Ethan Smith-Mills.
The town and team celebrated after the game, and fans lined the streets in Inez to welcome them home.
"We've had job losses and water problems. It just feels great for the community. They really rallied around our team," said Larry James.
But the celebration won't last long. Next Thursday, the Cardinals will take the court against the winner of the 3rd region at Rupp Arena.
"If we keep playing like we have been playing, I think we can make a run at it," said Trey James.