PAINTSVILLE — The Inez Indians had been a power in the 15th Region and the state of Kentucky since the 1930s. They had won four straight 15th Region titles (1934-37) with a state tournament runner-up finish (1937), following Paintsville’s appearance in 1933.
Then the Indians followed up that success with three more 15th Region titles (1939-41) and a state title for the small school in 1941. The 1941 Inez team placed all five of their starters on the Kentucky All-Star team who would play the Indiana All-Stars in their annual summer series. Inez had returned to the state tournament in 1946, but had suffered somewhat of a drought until 1954. The 1953-54 season was predicted to favor Inez and they were picked to win the region that year. However, they lost their first game of the year to Phelps, 75-70, and it appeared that a few other teams might walk away with the 15th Region title. Led by 5-foot-8 guard Herbie Triplett and 6-2 forward Billy Ray Cassidy, Inez was able to recover, come together and complete an impressive season. They suffered a second loss to in January, after a scheduling conflict had them playing in the Louisville Invitational Tournament and in Lexington on the same day.
They beat Louisville Flaget in the LIT, then traveled to Lexington where they lost to Henry Clay later that evening. The “Iron Men of Inez” also had some close district and region games, defeating Paintsville in the last regular season game of the season by one, 68-67, and in the 59th District championship game 66-58, then defeating Pikeville High School 82-80 in the 15th Region finals. Inez entered the 1954 Kentucky State Tournament with a 32-2 record.
In the first round of the tournament the Indians easily defeated Central City, 72-57. In their next game they were matched up against another mountain team, Dilce Combs, from Perry County. Dilce Combs gave the Indians a game, and Inez was only leading by eleven at halftime. The lead was cut to as few as seven, with just a few minutes left in the game before Cassady and Omar Fannin led Inez on a 8-1 run to end the game. Inez won 64-52. Cassady had 22 and Fannin had 16. In the semi-finals Inez tangled with Adair County. It was described as a “hard-fought” affair, with Inez holding onto a slim three-point lead going into the last quarter. Orville Blankenship made a free throw with a little under a minute to go and Inez hung on to win, 70-88, to advance to the state finals. Inez faced Newport, who defeated Ashland in the other semi-final by four. The only lead that Newport had was 2-0 to start the game. It was close throughout with Inez holding on to win the 1954 state championship by eight, 63-55.
It was Inez’s second state championship for the small. The accomplishment brought recognition to the city Inez and also to all of Eastern Kentucky. It was also a proud moment for former coach and current principal Russell Williamson, who had led Inez to the state title in 1941. After the victory he was quoted as saying, “We may be from the hills of Kentucky, but we are going to have a trophy in them thar hills!”
Driving home to Martin County, the state champion Indians were stopped in Paintsville by the local citizens. The team was put on the Paintsville’s fire engine and driven into town where they were greeted by over 1,000 proud fans who, according to the Paintsville Herald, “turned out to accord them one of the warmest welcomes any group could ever be given.”
Members of the team, Coach Claude Mills, and Principal Russell Williamson, gave brief speeches to the crowd. Paintsville dignitaries were on hand to welcome the team with speeches and the Paintsville High School band was on hand to entertain the crowd. Songs were sung to the team by the crowd and according to Larry Draper of the Paintsville Herald, “It brought tears of joy to my heart to know that, though these boys come from Inez, they actually belong in the hearts of us, here in this area.”
Nothing like the celebration for Inez was seen again in Paintsville for 42 years.
In 1996 the Paintsville Tigers returned home after winning the state championship and were greeted by a celebration bigger than what was given to Inez in 1954. The team was paraded through town, escorted by Paintsville’s fire trucks and police cars, and followed by a large caravan of fans. The gym was packed with the Paintsville faithful, young and old, and the speeches and music were given to the team.
Coach Bill Mike Runyon echoed the same sentiments that Russell Williamson had said years earlier when he said, “If you want to call us hillbillies, call us hillbillies, because we are state champions!”