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A story of victory that we all can share even in defeat

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By Steve Doyle

Sometimes the home team doesn’t have to bring home the hardware for a champion to be special. You root, root, root for the home team, but if they don’t win it isn’t always a shame.

And thus we can and should embrace the victory by Shelby Valley in the 2010 Sweet Sixteen as just a bit sweeter than the winner in a routine year.

Yes, that school vanquished the school that ruined Shelby County’s title hopes, Ballard, and it also was a triumph for the little guy (enrollment 589) and a community beset by difficult times, such as our poor economy and epidemic of Swine Flu earlier this year.

That a group of teammates and friends joined together to reach the pinnacle of their dreams is the stuff of Hoosiers, but not even those shining pieces of a great stories tell the essence of Shelby Valley’s victory.

Doris Cissell called to fill in the blanks. She wanted to be sure all of us, in our moment of sadness for the loss of SCHS, saw what a stalwart moment of triumph this was for mankind.

Doris lives in Simpsonville with her husband, Robert, but in 1988 they lived in Radcliff, where she was the secretary of Stithton Baptist Church, which took its name from the little town that was swallowed by Fort Knox.

And there she knew a young man named Jason Booher.

That’s the same Jason Booher who rode on that school bus that was struck tragically by a drunk driver on I-71 near Carrollton, one of a few to escape that frightening and fiery crash in which 27 died and dozens more were injured, one of life’s indelibly awful moments.

And, yes, the same Jason Booher who coached Shelby Valley to that state championship on Saturday night.

You perhaps have heard the story. Booher was one of a half-dozen kids from Stithton who were along on the church trip.

Two of those children died, two were burned badly and two escaped unharmed. One of those who escaped was Booher, and one who died was his best friend.

Doris Cissell tells the story with the memory of someone who lived it, and in shivering detail  for any parent she recounts how she first learned of that crash.

Her daughter, Julie, then 11, had been invited on the trip, but she was denied permission because she was too young and Doris couldn’t go along to chaperone.

“And she threw a pretty big fit about it,” Doris says.

And it was when a church member called her to check to see if Julie had been on that bus, to see if she was OK, that Doris first learned of the great loss and suffering that would knife through a community, change laws and launch the spirit of greatness into society.

Given her connection, Doris has followed the fates of three of the four kids who survived. One became a minister in Elizabethtown, another became a football player at UK and a motivational speaker, another, Janice Fain, inspired her mother to be a powerhouse for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

And then there was Jason Booher.

“Saturday night, Robert and I were in the living room, watching UK play basketball on TV,” she says, “but in the dining room we had the radio on and were listening to the State Tournament. We kept running back and forth between them.

“Between the third and fourth quarters, the commentator was listening to what the coaches were telling their players. He talked about the instructions the Ballard coach had  given to his players.

“And then he said, ‘Jason Booher just asked his players, Are you having fun out there?’

“And that,” she says, “sort of reflects Jason and how he sees life. You see life differently. You face death, and it changes life.”

Booher’s words may not carry the grit of the speech that Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman) gave his team in that film two years earlier, nor were there the dramatics of Jimmy Chitwood stepping up to guarantee he would make the winning shot – Shelby Valley won so handily, such late heroics weren’t needed – but this is a form of human drama that has even greater substance.

And it’s the stuff from which we all can learn.

Many of you have faced tragedy. Many of you have rebounded in ways that are inspirational to us all. You understand. Others of us just listen and watch, waiting for our moment to respond.

That horrible night in 1988 changed our world, providing for better laws, safer school buses and a greater emphasis on being sure we know how to respond to deadly situations.

Too many kids died in writing those lessons, but their sacrifice has spawned these new inspirational figures among us.

So often you hear that survivors of tragedy continue as victims in another form, that their lives lie in ruin, that their futures are obliterated by the agony of what they endured and what they lost.

We don’t know how hard it was for these kids from Stithton to go on with their lives. We don’t know how many years it has taken to gain perspective and leverage on the emotions that might otherwise drag them into the jaws of the serpent in the dark pit of despair.

But we can see today – in the moments of victory of a little old high school from the mountains of Kentucky – that that great foe of life can be defeated on a court of greater magnitude and importance.

Doris Cissell has done her part. She has made sure that victory doesn’t get past some of us who might otherwise have brushed it aside.

Those kids who died and those who lived are once again in the focus of a divine message that we all can understand.