I t’s not difficult to see how sports has impacted Owensboro and its residents.
Since moving to Owensboro in 2012, a few things have been abundantly clear: The sports history and tradition of the area far surpasses any surface-level expectations, the people living here possess deeply-ingrained passion and pride for the sports figures who helped put their town on the map, and there’s no sign of that stopping anytime soon.
Being a sports reporter for the city’s newspaper, of course, has provided a crash course on Owensboro-area athletics. From simply listening to the tales that people share about former stars, big-time games and brilliant minds, it’s clear that sports hold a special place in the collective hearts of this community.
And, as an “outsider” who’s since been welcomed in, it’s been impressive and, perhaps, even a little bit surprising to learn just how deep those roots go.
Every level of local athletics has helped weave the overall fabric of Owensboro sports.
There was Owensboro Southern making runs to the Little League Baseball World Series in 2004 and 2005 — in addition to winning six of the first seven state championships of the 2000s. You can still hear the reverence in which people talk about the pitching prowess of a young Cole Sturgeon, who’s played the last six seasons in the Boston Red Sox minor-league system after a standout career at the University of Louisville.
The amount of success that area drivers have had in motorsports and auto racing is astounding, as well.
From Darrell and Michael Waltrip — names I knew even as a kid — to Jeremy Mayfield and the Green brothers, along with 2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden and the Hayden family of motorcycle racers, there’s no shortage of on-track triumphs over the years. They all had humble beginnings, too. Whether it was competing at Kentucky Motor Speedway, Windy Hollow Speedway or even just self-built training grounds, their paths to prosperity were carved right here.
The high school level is where most of Owensboro’s storied legends seem to come from, though.
Rex Chapman had a wildly-successful high school career at Apollo and went on to play for the University of Kentucky before parlaying that experience into a 12-year NBA career. He was drafted eighth overall in 1988 by the Charlotte Hornets, with later stops in Washington, Miami and Phoenix.
Before that, Kenny Higgs led Owensboro High School to the 1972 state championship, then went to LSU before spending three years in the NBA. His brother, Mark Higgs, was a two-time high school All-American on the gridiron, played for Kentucky and then competed for eight years in the NFL. He was the Miami Dolphins’ leading rusher from 1991-93.
Becca Greenwell, who starred at Owensboro Catholic, won three national AAU championships with Tennessee Flight, captured a pair of gold medals with the United States U16 and U17 teams, and set a number of OCHS records — including breaking the national girls’ high school record with 17 3-pointers in a single game. She scored 1,874 points at Duke and was drafted in the third round of the 2018 WNBA Draft.
On the baseball diamond, Brad Wilkerson was a standout at Apollo under coach Bob Mantooth, before going on to play at the University of Florida and then a number of years in Major League Baseball in the 2000s.
And no walk down memory lane is complete without mention of the Kentucky Wesleyan College men’s basketball program, which leads NCAA Division II history with eight national titles. Players like “King” Kelly Coleman, Corey Crowder, Rod Drake, Dwight Higgs, Dallas Thornton and George Tinsley, along with coaches like Wayne Boultinghouse, Wayne Chapman, Ray Harper, Bob Jones and Mike Pollio, were all key figures in that storied history.
Countless other names — Randy Embry, Cliff Hagan, Larry Vanover, Nick Varner and Bobby Watson, just to name a few — hold weight in this community, and I suspect they will for many years to come.
Any names or figures I didn’t mention weren’t left out because of malice or ill intent, either. It’s due to the sheer fact that so many talented individuals are either from the area or have passed through it. Each person has left an indelible mark on Owensboro-area athletics.
In a time when sports are so notably absent in our lives, the memories and accomplishments of those sports figures who have shaped the culture of our community is more important than ever.