For the Tribune-Courier
Consolidation can be the ugliest of words when the impact forces deep-rooted, tradition-rich programs that have battled on every surface imaginable to come together as one.
But the co-mingling of the various small, rural schools that were once the backbone of their often fading communities into one county mega-school is nothing new to First Region athletics.
It’s happened almost everywhere you turn.
In Marshall County, mergers ultimately gobbled up the Sharpe Green Devils, Brewers Redmen, Hardin Eagles, North Marshall Jets, Calvert City Wildcats, Benton Indians and South Marshall Rebels.
In Graves County, consolidation swallowed up the Symsonia Rough Riders, Sedalia Lions, Cuba Cubs, Wingo Indians, Fancy Farm Golden Gophers and Lowes Blue Devils.
In Calloway County, the Faxon Panthers, Almo Warriors, Lynn Grove Wildcats, Kirksey Eagles, New Concord Red Birds and Hazel Lions were all cast away.
And even in smaller counties like Carlisle, Ballard, Hickman and Fulton, the large school movement could not be stopped.
McCracken County’s recent merger into the largest school in the First Region with some 2,000 students has cast Lone Oak High School, Heath High School and Reidland High School by the wayside.
The bitter rivalries that have long histories from the past, and even some fresh competitions that have come to surface in the past few years, are long gone.
Now the arch-rivals that were once known as the Purple Flash, Pirates and Greyhounds, must learn how to coexist as Mustangs.
Under the guidance of veteran journeyman coach Jack Haskins, McCracken County’s football program will be under the microscope in the coming months as it tries to ride the wave of momentum that Lone Oak built over the past six seasons.
Haskins installed a no-huddle offense, and the Purple Flash, once a regional doormat, flourished. After three five-loss seasons, Lone Oak’s fling and sling offense ranked up 752 points in 2007 and went 14-1 before losing to private school powerhouse Lexington Catholic in the 4A state championship game.
Two seasons later, the Purple Flash (14-1) came up just short in the state finals, losing to Boyle County 42-39 in a double-overtime heartbreaker after leading late in the fourth quarter.
From 2007 to 2012, Lone Oak became a legitimate 4A contender, going 67-13 while reaching at least the second round of the playoffs each year.
“What the consolidation has done is killed Lone Oak’s excellent ride,” said Marshall County football coach Ron Barnard. “It really hurt Lone Oak in all athletics, because they had things really rolling.”
In addition to football, Lone Oak’s success in spring sports has been unmatched as of late. The Purple Flash tennis program set the standard for excellence in the First Region, amassing numerous regional titles in both boys and girls play with a total of eleven girls state championships on the court.
On the baseball diamond, Lone Oak showcased an Associated Press top-10 ranking for much of the season while posting a 36-6 record, First Region championship and state tournament showing.
The Lady Flash softball squad (32-5) claimed a regional crown over longtime First Region and statewide powerhouse Reidland before going 2-2 at the state championships.
Reidland’s storied softball program captured three state championships and posted 579 wins to lay claim to its dominance over the years, which includes a ranking of fourth in all-time wins statewide heading into the 2013 season.
With the success that many of the programs had established, it only made sense to stay in-house to fill numerous coaching positions. Lone Oak tennis coach Larry Heflin, Reidland softball coach Tony Hayden and Lone Oak baseball skipper Geno Miller were tabbed to lead the Mustangs in their respective sports.
On the hardwood, McCracken County hired from within again. Lone Oak girls basketball coach Josh Barnett, who posted a pair of 20-win seasons since leaving Paducah Tilghman, was named girls basketball coach. Heath boys basketball coach Burlin Brower, who led the Pirates to at least 18 wins the past four seasons, was selected as the Mustangs new coach as well.
“Coach Barnett was obviously the right choice for the job,” said Lady Marshals coach Joseph Simmons. “If they give him time, he will get that program competing for a championship. They’ve got talent, and he gets the most out of his talent.”
The merger of the McCracken County schools has also has created various scheduling problems, as well as great opportunities.
“It has changed the district make-up in all sports,” said Marshall County athletic director Jeff Stokes. “While we lost Lone Oak and Heath in basketball, we have gained a money game with McCracken County.”
Stokes said that he hopes that the new neighboring school will become a great draw for the Marshals down the road, much like the heated rivalry that now exists between Marshall County and Graves County on the basketball court.
“You look back at history in the late 1980s and those Marshall County-Graves County basketball games were sellout crowds after the Graves County merger,” Stokes said.
Simmons sees the potential for intense battles with the new foe.
“I think it can be a great rivalry,” Simmons explained. “Marshall County and Graves County were the two biggest schools in the region and have a great rivalry. Now there’s an even bigger school. This should create a lot of excitement in the area from a fan’s standpoint.”
But Barnard doesn’t think that the new next door neighbor Mustangs will automatically become a rival, even though they are district foes.
“Not at first,” Barnard said. “But I think it will be in a few years.
“Jack Haskins has always had a good product on the football field, whether he was coaching 1A or now 6A.”