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Walton-Verona girls continue quest for state title without head coach who’s battling cancer

By Terry Boehmker
NKyTribune sports reporter

The Walton-Verona girls basketball team is continuing its quest for the All “A” Classic state championship without head coach Mark Clinkenbeard, who is being treated for colon cancer.

The Bearcats won a home game against West Carter, 62-32, in the quarterfinal round of small school playoffs on Sunday and advanced to the tournament semifinals to be played later this week at Eastern Kentucky University.

Walton-Verona players are wearing “Clawin’ for Clink” T-shirts to remind them to play hard for head coach Mark Clinkenbeard, who’s being treated for cancer. (Photo by Carla Martin)

Walton-Verona will face the winner of the Berea vs. Owsley County game in a semifinal match-up at 2:30 Friday. The girls state championship game is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Saturday.

In the last two All “A” Classic state tournaments, Walton-Verona made it to the championship final and lost by a four-point margin both times. The Bearcats have an added incentive to win this year’s state title for their beloved coach.

The players are now wearing T-shirts with the words “Clawin’ for Clink” printed on the back that inspires them to play their best for him.

According to a Facebook post dated Feb. 17, Clinkenbeard was diagnosed with colon cancer last September and underwent chemo and radiation treatments. He had surgery on Feb. 15 and will resume treatments after he recovers.

Clinkenbeard turned the varsity team over to assistant coach Rianna Gayhart, who has guided the Bearcats to four wins over the last two weeks, including two victories in the small school playoffs, that raised their record to 13-6.

In the win over West Carter (7-6) on Sunday, Walton-Verona shot 58 percent (24 of 41) from the field on its home court and won the rebounding battle by a 31-19 margin.

Walton-Verona guard Haylee Neeley drives to the basket against West Carter forward Kara Jordan. (Photo by Carla Martin)

The leading scorer for the Bearcats was junior center Maggie Buerger with 16 points to go along with a game-high nine rebounds. Junior guard Kylie Lay and senior guard Haylee Neeley had 13 points each.

Lay and Neeley made all five of their team’s 3-point goals to account for 15 of their combined 26 points. Neely ended up shooting 80 percent (4 of 5) from the field overall while Buerger shot 70 percent (7 of 10).

West Carter’s team shot 30 percent (12 of 39) from the field with no scorers in double figures. Junior guard Allie Stone, who came into the game averaging 20 points, was held to six.

St. Henry is the only local team remaining in the boys All “A” Classic playoffs. The Crusaders (12-2) will visit West Carter (9-3) for a quarterfinal game at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday with the winner advancing to the tournament semifinals next weekend.

St. Henry won last year’s All “A” Classic boys state tournament and entered this year’s playoffs as the top-ranked team. The last local team to win consecutive state championships was Newport Central Catholic in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The sectional playoff format is being used this year because the All “A” Classic boys and girls state tournaments that were supposed to be played Feb. 15-20 had to be canceled due to the heavy snowfall that swept across the Kentucky.

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