PIPPA PASSES, Ky. (AP) - Over the years, the basketball team from a tiny college prep school had no end of invitations to play in homecoming games throughout Kentucky's coalfields.
"Everybody wanted us because they knew they could beat us," said Clark Stepp, a junior guard from June Buchanan School.
Those invitations have stopped now that the school with only 34 boys in grades 9-12 has been crowned regional champion in southeastern Kentucky and is on its way to the state tournament that begins Wednesday in Lexington.
Local radio personality Ira Combs said the Crusaders, with a record of 26-6, have generated enthusiasm throughout Kentucky's mountain region, far beyond the tiny community of Pippa Passes, and those fans, he said, will turn out in force at Rupp Arena to cheer on the underdog team from the heart of Appalachia.
"It's probably a level of 'Hoosiers,"' Combs said, referring to the 1986 movie about a small-town high school basketball team that won the Indiana state championship.
The difference is that Pippa Passes, population 297, is even smaller and far more remote that the town portrayed in "Hoosiers." Pippa Passes has no fast-food restaurants. The nearest Wal-Mart is in the next county, 30 minutes away.
"Pippa Passes is even isolated by eastern Kentucky standards," Combs said.
The community was named Pippa Passes by Alice Lloyd, an ducator who came to Caney Creek from Boston in 1917 to teach local children in one of the most impoverished areas of the United States. She was later joined by her friend and fellow educator June Buchanan. Together they founded what has since become Alice Lloyd College, a private non-denominational school that serves Kentucky's Appalachian region. The June Buchanan School opened on the college campus in 1984 to provide an academically challenging curriculum for local children aimed at preparing them for college and careers. Headmaster Yvon Allen said the high school's basketball players are gifted both athletically and academically. The average GPA for the team is 3.5.
"All the kids here will go to college," Allen said. "We do not have a dropout rate. One out of every 10 graduates become doctors."
The Crusaders face teams from much larger schools. Their first matchup, scheduled for Thursday, is against Bowling Green's Warren Central High School, 28-4, which has played in the state tournament each of the past six years and won the title in 2004.
Warren Central has an enrollment of over 1,000, compared with June Buchanan's high school enrollment of 74. All Kentucky schools, regardless of size, compete for the same championship in basketball.
Other teams in the Sweet 16 are Adair County, 23-9; Lincoln County, 24-9; Oldham County, 23-6; Scott County, 30-2; South Laurel, 28-5; Fairdale, 24-7; Holmes, 23-9; Owensboro, 24-8; Paducah ilghman, 25-7; Ballard, 32-2; George R. Clark, 25-7; Christian County, 28-4; Elliott County, 24-6; Shelby Valley, 29-3.
A victory by a tiny school would not be unprecedented - the private University Heights of Hopkinsville, with high school enrollment of 58, won the boys' title in 1992.
"We know we've got our work cut out for us," said June Buchanan Coach Gary Stepp.
In Kentucky, controversy has swirled over allegations of some private schools recruiting top athletes from public schools; under one pending proposal certain transfer students would be ineligible for a year.
Meanwhile, at June Buchanan, the leading scorers came in as kindergartners.
That includes Clark Stepp, the top scorer averaging 25 points per game, and Tate Cox, the second-highest scorer averaging 14 points per game. The 6-foot 9-inch center, Garrison Collins, who scores nearly 8 points per game, enrolled as a first grader.
If the Crusaders were to win the tournament, the story line would be more amazing than the movie, Combs said.
"They're probably the longest of all long shots," he said. "Warren Central is probably an 18- to 20-point better team on paper, but as we all know, games aren't played on paper. Anything could happen."
On the Net:
June Buchanan School: http://www.alc.edu/jbs/jbs.htm
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)