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Even before they had gotten on I-75 for the trip home from Simon Kenton High School last March 6, the red paint was getting ready for the Anderson County Lady Bearcats.
One big, fat, bright red target, made to order.
It made little difference that the state tournament was still to be played in Bowling Green. The target was already drying by the time the Lady Bearcats took the Diddle Arena floor against Clay County. Anderson's first trip to the girls' Sweet 16 in 32 years was a short one as Clay pounded the Lady Bearcats inside for a 70-56 win.
But even that did nothing to erase the target. For more than eight months, those in the know have gushed praise on the Lady Bearcats, who only lost one player to graduation.
“Anderson is loaded. ... They are the team to beat, by far,” says Simon Kenton coach Jeff Stowers, who saw Anderson end his teams's two-year strangle-hold on the Eighth Region in the championship game.
“Anderson is scary because of their youth but even more scary because of their talent,” says Collins coach Phillip Conder, who lost to the Lady Bearcats twice last year when he was at Shelby County. “They know what its like to get to Diddle. I am sure they want to get back and show they can win there as well.”
And the Lady Bearcats are embracing their status. They might as well, since that status will be there anyway. “The target is on their backs,” says Lady Bearcat coach Tony Kays. “We have talked about it. Teams are going to bring it against us. We are the team circled on their schedules.”
That is what happens when a team wins all 10 games against regional foes and no one comes closer than five points. The Lady Bearcats are an overwhelming favorite to return to Diddle but history is filled with overwhelming favorites that failed to make it back.
Teams should be excited about winning a region but just being “Happy to be there” can also be a curse. Kays says that was not a problem in March and should not be one this year.
“They were upset after the state tournament,” Kays says. “After we lost, the happiness of being at the state tournament was gone. They want to go back and they want to advance.
“Several of the kids stayed in Bowling Green for the rest of the state tournament. Mackenzie Cann watched the whole tourney. The more she watched, the more it upset her.”
Kays could only smile at he thought of an eighth-grader who had scored 20 points in the big show was not happy just getting there.
“They're hungry,” Kays says of his team. “They want to go back and this year, we want to be a Top 20 team. That is our goal.”
A year ago, Anderson went 20-9 against a schedule many felt might have been a bit much for a team that started two eighth-graders – Eriel McKee joined Cann – and made a liberal use of several middle schoolers in reserve roles. Yet, the Lady Bearcats defeated Lafayette in the season opener and ripped a strong Ballard team in the first week of the season.
“We got off to a good start,” Kays said. “The kids never thought they were young. Then we beat Ballard. We caught them at a good time. Their best player (Nicole Heitz) was hurt.”
There will be no sneaking up on anyone this year. And the schedule is even tougher, including a date with Sacred Heart at Rupp Arena and appearances in the Republic Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic and the Mercer County Titan Clash, a 16-team affair that will include some of Kentucky's best teams.
Anderson is a hot commodity since Cann and McKee – or should it be McKee and Cann? -- are ranked among the top five freshmen in the state by nearly every recruiting service.
It is not often that a high school team has a pair of frosh as the leaders, but Cann and McKee are not typical freshmen. Both started playing varsity ball as seventh-graders with McKee being named all-regional tournament.
Cann is the one with the deadly jump shot and deft passing. “Hands down, the best player in the region,” says Collins' Conder. “My assistant coach (Charlie) Matthews refers to her as the assassin because she is always focused. Cann is who I worried about last year in the district finals and she is who I keep on mind during practice.”
She was 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and overtime in the 30th District final.
McKee is the wildly athletic natural who is devastating in the open court and, Kays says, “she is a little stronger and a little quicker than last year.”
Junior Sydney Brown is the one mentioned most often by the region's coaches, falling in everyone's Top 10 players. That's probably because she stands 6-foot-1 and is very strong. Brown has improved dramatically over the last three years and will probably draw the attention of many college coaches.
“Sydney is going to command a lot of attention,” Kays says. “She has a great personality. She is the nicest kid, but every once in a while, she has had enough.”
Brown, McKee and Cann are in just about everyone's Top 10 list, but Anderson's success will probably depend on how everyone else accepts their roles and how the Lady Cats replace last year's lone senior, Kara Yeaste.
Yeaste caught fire in the post-season and was named the regional tournament's Most Valuable Player. She is now at Northern Kentucky University, where she is a member of the soccer team.
“We are going to miss Kara,” Kays says. “She had a lot of leadership down the stretch. You have to have that if it is the first time to go to the state in that long of a period.”
Caroline McDowell started last year, turning in several big games. She hit some key free throws in the regional semifinal against Walton-Verona and has shown the ability to score at times through her career.
As the season opens at Lafayette next Tuesday, the fifth starter is freshman point guard Destiny Stewart.
Sophomore Kali Whiteside will see plenty of action and could move into the lineup in the front court. Extremely athletic, Whiteside is still learning the game after taking it up two years ago. “She pushes Sydney in practice and her offensive game is better. She has come miles.
Eighth-grader Corrin Robinson is also expected to see plenty of action in the backcourt. A good shooter, Robinson is being hampered by a back injury as the season starts. “We hope to have her back in December,” Kays says. “She is such a competitor. It is killing her to sit out. She works so hard and she will be there. Right now, we have just got to get her healthy.
Junior Libby Pike, sophomore Kellsie Baker and freshmen Alex Avritt and Jessica Rice should all provide depth for a team that Kays says will be versatile.
“We can have different packages,” he says. “We can have a bigger, stronger team or we can have a pressing team.
“We have got to learn to play different tempos. We will struggle at times but we are working on being more efficient.”
Kays is confident, but it can be easy to forget that the current Lady Bearcats are still very young. McDowell is the only senior while Brown and Pike are the only juniors.
The Lady Bearcats will have to recognize changing and gimmick defenses and will be under more intense scrutiny. It all comes with the reputation built as the Lady Bearcats finally broke through at the top of the region after two straight runner-up finishes.
“Anderson is loaded but has to caution themselves about living in the past,” says Simon Kenton's Stowers, who won the previous two Eighth Region titles. “With Coach Kays, I do not see this happening.”
With the season opener on the horizon and a rugged schedule looming, Kays believes his kids are ready, saying, “We have a lot of work to do but we are looking forward to the season.”
Even with a big red target on their backs.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.