Kittanning's 'Nation' helps spur basketball team's success
The celebration from the “Jubilation Nation” — hats, horns and signs— exceeded all expectations Kittanning senior guard Sterling Henry had for the night he surpassed 1,000 career points.
Sophomore guard Noah Kunst, his first playoff game, found nirvana on a neutral court thanks to the Nation's noise.
And Central Valley coach Brandon Ambrose listed the pro-Kittanning ambiance at Hampton High School among the reasons his fifth-seeded Warriors endured an upset loss to the Wildcats in the WPIAL Class AAA first round.
A student section with a catchy nickname deserves some credit for the almost unprecedented success of the Kittanning boys basketball team (20-4), which enters Friday's quarterfinal-round game against No. 4 Beaver (18-3) with a chance to win three consecutive playoff games for the first time since 1925.
“With them,” sixth-year Kittanning coach Bill Henry said, “it feels like every game is a home game.”
Henry recalls the days earlier in his career when every game sounded like a practice. Kittanning's team struggled, and attendance suffered.
“It was quiet enough that you could hear shoes squeaking on the floor when they were playing,” Henry said. “You could hear one person yell, even from across the gym.”
Senior Blake Davis, one of Jubilation Nation's three primary leaders, identified the group's birth date as Dec. 18, 2012 — the night Kittanning edged Knoch, 68-67.
Sterling Henry sank a game-winning jumper with just seconds left, and Davis, along with about 30 other students, charged out of the stands to celebrate.
“I thought everybody would be pumped,” senior guard Kevin Barnes said, “but I didn't think they would storm the court.”
Senior Tyler Crissman, another member of the fan section, described the scene as “jubilation.”
The boys liked the word, especially when paired with “nation.” Out went “Wick City Zoo” as the section's nickname.
Davis, senior Kol Lazaroff and senior Nellie Toy, once motivated to attend games simply to see friends, soon found an opportunity to organize the student energy.
On Jan. 4, with Kittanning scheduled to play at Mars for first place in Section 1-AAA, a bus shuttled slightly more than 50 students to the event.
Mars defeated Kittanning, 65-45.
Davis and Bill Henry both worried students might lose interest.
The Wildcats won enough games in the ensuing weeks to maintain a steady following.
Davis came up with the idea to create T-shirts — not another red or black clothing item to add to the collection, but a neon green shirt that would stand out and highlight the section's size.
A first order of 150 shirts — sold at $12 a piece — disappeared as fast as Davis could sell it.
Three fan buses will carry students to Friday's playoff game thanks to donations from numerous organizations, Davis said, students no longer need to pay $5 to ride as they did for the Mars game.
“They said we've been getting louder and louder,” Davis said of the players. “I believe there's a point difference when they get that emotional edge, and it can be annoying for the other team if they're not used to it.”
Bill Henry continues to marvel at the growth of student support.
“It does make a difference, and they put a lot of work into it,” he said. “You always hope that you have a good following because you always worry that you're going to make a run, and no one will be there to see it.”
Worry not coach; Kittanning now has a Nation of witnesses.