Nearly a half a century ago, the landscape of high school basketball was a lot different. The players wore short trunks, knee-high white tube socks with stripes of their school colors, and everyone wore Converse Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. As a matter of fact, the only great innovation in the athletic shoe industry at that time was that Chuck Taylor's went from being in only white colors to different colors, which allowed teams to wear school colored shoes.
The 1973-74 Pulaski County High School basketball team starting five of Barry Daulton, Dennis Price, John Bolze, Terry Branscum, and Tony Wilburn, was coached by Denton Ping. The team was not heralded as one of the top teams in the district and, as a matter of fact, the Maroons were more towards the bottom of the district standing midway through the season.
At the beginning of the new year of 1974, a lot of exciting things started happening for the Pulaski County High School basketball team. Despite carrying a losing record for the first half of the season, the Maroons began to see some grand things on the horizon.
The first of which was the addition of three players to their line-up. Junior Barry Daulton, who had transferred from Nancy High School to Pulaski County High School the year before, was eligible to play after sitting out 27 games. Senior point guard Terry Branscum would be returning from a broken finger injury and senior Dennis Price would be returning after recovering from mononucleosis.
The other big event for the Maroons was the opening of their new state-of-the-art, 6,000-capcity gymnasium, which was set to open on January 18, 1974. Despite falling to region powerhouse Monticello 53-47 in that opening game of their new spacious gym, the Pulaski County basketball team took on a whole new sense of pride.
For junior center John Bolze, the new Pulaski County gym was by far larger than anything else he had ever seen or played in.
"I came from Pine Knot and we played on a quarter-stripe court, which meant the top of the key was at halfcourt and they had another line in backcourt that represented the halfcourt line when you were playing offense on that side of the court," Bolze stated. "As a kid, the first thing I thought was 'man the wind sprints are going to be longer on this new court'."
For Barry Daulton, the new Pulaski County basketball court presented some problems for him to.
"Up to that point, every gym I had played in there was a wall right behind the goal, but our new gym had all this space behind the goal which was strange for me as a shooter," Daulton laughed. "Also, the first time I dribbled down the sidelines I went out of bounds. I was always used to having the bleachers just a foot or two outside the out-of-bounds line, but in the new gym the bleachers were a long ways from the out-of-bounds line."
The 1974 Pulaski County players referred to their new gym as 'The Salt Palace' - after The Salt Palace in Utah and because they used to consume a lot of salt tablets for electrolytes.
As the new year wore on, the Pulaski County players started to get accustomed to their new gym, while their opponents were still in awe of the new edifice.
"I can still remember the look on our opponents' faces when they first walked into the gym," Daulton laughed. "Instead of walking onto the locker rooms, they would just stand there and stare at the vastness of the gym. I think that alone, gave us a few point advantage against most every team we played there."
Also along the way, the Maroons started setting their sights on maybe bigger goals - the 48th District title - which Pulaski County High School had never won in their 24 years of existence.
"Back in those day, winning a district title was sort of a 'pipe dream' for the Pulaski County teams," Daulton explained. "In the late 60's, we had 13 teams in the district and in 1974 we had seven solid teams in the district, which included an always strong Somerset and newly-consolidated Laurel County. Plus, all the smaller county teams (Eubank, Shopville, Nancy and Burnside) were strong and most of them had already beaten us that season."
Pulaski County went into the 1974 district tournament ranked third (according to the Litkenhouse Ratings) behind Somerset and Laurel County. Somerset and Laurel County played for the district crown in 1973, and many felt like those two teams would meet up again in the 1974 district finals. Also, this was the fist year Pulaski County had ever hosted the district tournament.
"I guess the accountant came out in Barry Daulton, because he would remind us we were ranked third in the ratings behind Somerset and Laurel County," Bolze laughed. "Barry knew all our individual stats, as well as the other teams' stats."
As luck would have it, Pulaski County drew Laurel County in the first game of the 1974 tournament. Although Laurel County had never been knocked out of the district tournament since the consolidation of the school in 1971, the Maroons pulled off the opening-round upset with their 69-55 win over the Cardinals. Then in the semifinals, it took a last-second left-handed layup by Pulaski County junior Mike Erp to secure the Maroons' 55-53 win over Burnside.
However, the Maroons had to face Somerset in the 48th District Tournament championship game. The Briar Jumpers were a 10-point favorite, and had easily downed the Maroons earlier in the season. Not only were the two teams playing for a district title, but it was a very intense rivalry with high emotions on the line.
"The Pulaski County-Somerset rivalry was a lot different back then than it is now," Daulton explained. "Nowadays, these kids from both schools are friends and probably grew up competing against each other for most of their lifes."
"In 1974, most of the players on the two teams didn't really know each other," Daulton said. "I was from Nancy, Tony Wilburn was from Woodstock and John Bolze was from Pine Knot. We hadn't grown up with these guys, and to us they were our enemies."
Led by senior Dennis Price's game-high 19 points, the Maroons pulled off the 59-46 upset to win the school's first basketball district title.
"It is hard to explain how intense this rivalry was back then, but I remember seeing tears in the Somerset players' eyes during the last few minutes of the game," Bolze said. "That is not a knock on them, that is just how bad both teams wanted to win. If we had lost I am sure we would have been just as emotional."
But emotions were at an all-time high after the Maroons had claimed their first district crown that Saturday night on March 2, 1974.
"We cut down the nets and put them around our two seniors' necks - Terry Branscum and Dennis Price," Daulton said. "We all went up to get the trophy. Terry Branscum took the trophy and we started to take a victory lap around the floor. Me and Bolze said let's pick up Coach (Denton) Ping and we carried him around the court on our shoulders."
Bolze also said he vividly remembers the post-game celebration like it was yesterday.
"We were all happy, but I think Coach Ping was just as happy as we were," Bolze recalled. "He was a young coach and he had never won a basketball title before, so he was happy for us and we were happy for him."
Now 46 years later, both Barry Daulton and John Bolze still talk about how that one night in March of 1974 changed their lives forever.
"My mom, Betty Jo Bolze, took me and my brothers to all our sporting events, and she always gave us words of encouragement like 'Work hard and grind down to get the reward' and 'Winners never quit, and quitters never win.' They might sound cliche, but I tried to live by her words and it paid off, and I still live by them now in my adult life."
The Maroons' 1974 district title may not be the grandest moment in the program's rich basketball history, but Barry Daulton feels like it was a necessary stepping stone to the program's later success.
"You can't win your second district championship before you win the first one, and we did that," Daulton stated. "Coach Dave Fraley came along a few years later and led Pulaski County to their first regional title in 1979 and their first state title in 1986, and those two titles were really pipe dreams back then. I would like to think our 1974 district title got things rolling and helped future teams in their even bigger success."
"We were the first to win a basketball district title at Pulaski County, and you can't take that away from us," Daulton stated. "I still feel an overwhelming sense of pride every time I walk into the Pulaski County gym and see that district title banner on the wall, and '1974' is the first year on that banner. I will always be proud of that."
STEVE CORNELIUS is the CJ Sports Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @CJSportseditor.