By David Green
DRAFFENVILLE – Perfection is not often achieved by humans; so-called “perfectionists” among us usually realize that their best efforts fall short of the mark by increments or large gaps, depending on the measuring instrument.
According to the final won-loss record of the 1984 Marshall County Lady Marshals basketball team, the players completed a perfect – as in undefeated – season.
Another MCHS athlete who came along in the following decade never imagined he would be able to achieve the things he did on a soccer field, and never gave a thought to the idea of becoming a coach; now, thanks to his perseverance, he has what he considers the perfect job, as associate head coach of men’s soccer at Evansville University in Indiana.
Both the team and the individual are slated for enshrinement in the Marshall County High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame Aug. 25.
Marshall Ray was a multi-sport athlete as a student, but his prep career was plagued by injuries, and when senior year rolled around in the fall of 1994, he decided to focus on one sport – soccer.
Retired coach Don Walker, remembers Ray’s talent and his tenacity.
“He was just a player of tremendous character and heart,” Walker said. “He was a big strong kid for a high school soccer player, but he was hurt a lot.”
Ray had anterior cruciate ligament reconstructive surgery as a freshman, and suffered a broken leg as a sophomore.
The talent showed early. Ray was one of the varsity’s leading scorers as an eighth grader. By the end of his career, he was all-district, all-region, first-team all-state.
But he deflects individual credit.
“I feel fortunate,” he said. “There were a lot of great players who laid the foundation.”
Ray completed his collegiate career at Evansville and then made his way up to the Nashville Metros of the A-League in 2001. At the time, the A-League was the next level below MLS.
But his desire was to become a Park Service ranger, so he enrolled in graduate school to study environmental education at Drury University in Springfield, Mo.
Not surprisingly, he became a graduate assistant coach with the school’s soccer program.
In something of a revelation to Ray, he found his niche there.
“I fell in love with coaching,” he said, “with interacting with kids 18 to 20 years old. I didn’t go looking for a job in coaching.”
At age 25, in 2003 he became the youngest head coach of a Division I program when he took the reins at Drury.
After a stop as an assistant at Duke University in Durham, N.C., it was back to Evansville, as an assistant in 2006-2008 and then as associate head coach.
“It did kind of fall into my lap,” he said.
Likewise, things kind of fell into place for the 1984 Lady Marshals – but not just in that one year.
Those were heady days for MCHS basketball, as the school compiled a streak of 10 consecutive First Region championships and two state Sweet Sixteen titles, plus one runner-up finish. In a glorious four-year period, Marshall would sweep three of four Miss Basketball titles.
Oh, and there was that 34-0 season.
It was the second ever for a girls’ champion in Kentucky and the fourth overall. Marshall County’s Brewers High School team was one of the other four, in 1948.
No team has completed a perfect season since the Lady Marshals did it.
Heady days, indeed.
The team featured a quartet of seniors in guard Staci Dick, Penny Barrett, Maggie Yopp and Carol Parker, plus junior Rona Poe. By season’s end, freshman Mary Taylor was in the mix. The young player was destined to join Parker (1984) and Poe (1985) as a Miss Basketball pick in her senior year, 1987.
The playmaker, Dick – known now to First Region basketball fans as St. Mary Lady Vikings head coach Staci Averill – remembers candidly that the ‘83-84 season did not hold much local challenge for this Marshall squad.
Nor did non-local competition prove equal, although there were some close calls.
Averill remembers tests in the Louisville Invitational Tournament in mid-season, first against Atherton High School.
“They were athletic, they were tall, they were quick,” she said of the Atherton squad.
Then, in the finals, they faced Belfry, a highly regarded team but on that night a 45-36 victim of the Lady Marshals.
The pressure built, almost unconsciously for the players, but came boiling to the surface the evening of the state championship game. Marshall had to survive Laurel County in a 39-38 semifinal game on Saturday morning at Eastern Kentucky University’s Alumni Coliseum.
That earned them the right to advance to the championship in a rematch of the LIT finale against Belfry.
“The fans, the band were all gathered outside our hotel,” Averill said. “As we started getting on the bus, we just all started crying.”
Alarmed fans thought something was wrong, but Averill said it was just the realization that they were on the threshold of a second state title in three years and an undefeated season.
“It began sinking in,” she said. “Wow, we’ve won 33 games. This is what we’ve worked for.”
Belfry was a worthy opponent, erasing memories of the nine-point defeat in the LIT. But Marshall prevailed, 55-53.
Taylor, the freshman member of that team, is now Mary Cowles, head coach at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, remains awed by what the 1984 team did.
“‘Perfect’ might be just the word to apply to that season,” she said. “It just didn’t get any better than that.”
NEXT WEEK: Football standout Jim Piercefield and basketball star Dan Hall.