GIRLS' EIGHTH REGION PREVIEW: In wide open race, Simon Kenton still the pick

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South Oldham, Owen in chase; Keep an eye on Walton-Verona

By John Herndon

It might be open season when it comes to the Eighth Region girls' basketball race but a familiar name remains at the top.

Simon Kenton, the team that has won the last two regional championships could make it a three-peat this season, but the consensus of the region's coaches is that 2010 should be the most wide open race to Bowling Green in many years.

As many as six teams, including two-time regional runner-up Anderson County, can make a case for being the team to beat and several others could be a in a spoiler role.

What is certain is that the region as a whole has experienced major graduation losses and even the top teams are loaded with young players.

Simon Kenton lost guard Chelsea Tolliver, last year's regional player of the year, and three other starters or top reserves, but junior guard Sydni Wainscott returns and has some support as the region's top player. Seniors Alli Ponzer and Nikki Brown saw plenty of action and talented sophomore Hannah Stephenson is expected to be in the lineup.

“Hannah Stephenson should be an impact player,she has been in our system since the eighth grade and has as much talent as anyone who has been in our program,” Simon Kenton coach Jeff Stowers says.

Simon Kenton relies on an up-tempo offense and an in-your-face physical defense rarely seen in the girls' game. “Defense and work ethic will be our strength,playing experience will hinder us early on but should bold well for us by tournament time,” Stowers says.

Since coming to the Eighth Region, Simon has been the unquestioned queen of the region and this year, the Lady Pioneers host the regional tournament.

“They have to be considered the favorite,” says South Oldham coach Frank Wright, “especially with the top returning guard tandem in the region in Wainscott and Ponzer. Until someone proves they can be beaten, Simon Kenton's  intangibles - their veterans and their recent dominant tradition - are a pretty potent combination.”

“Until someone beats them, they are the champions,” Anderson County coach Tony Kays adds.

If someone knocks Simon Kenton from its throne, South Oldham is a good choice, based on being one of the few teams that boasts significant returnees.

The Dragons return a solid one-two backcourt punch in 5-7 senior Jordann McGuffin (12 ppg, 5 rpg last year) and talented 5-10 sophomore Jasmine Whitfield (10 ppg).

Owen County, which dominated the All-A tournament for years, might have enough firepower to make the school's first trip to the Sweet 16. The Lady Rebels boast sophomore guard Rianna Gayheart (16 ppg), tabbed by The Cats' Pause as the region's top player and some other talented players in 5-7 seniors Eko Kemper (7 rpg) and Jensen Wainscott.

However, Owen County faces the perennial question on its ability to compete with the larger schools in the region. With Gayheart, that question might seem silly. She can play.

Anderson could have the best young talent in the region. Oldham County returns three senior starters, but will be learning a third system in three years as Larry Just moved to Louisville Butler.

Stephen Mullins takes over in Buckner and returns a powerful inside player in 5-9 Emily Lape (11 ppg) but will have to replace dynamite point guard Audri Beaudrie.

Many have written Shelby County off as the Lady Rockets were eliminated in district play for the first time ever last season, lost leading scorer Haleigh LeCompte and ultra-successful coach Sally Zimmerman stepped down to become the school's athletic director. However, the Lady Rockets have enough firepower to be a factor in Coach Philip Conder's first season and the school's final season before splitting.

“Taylor Shaw, a 5-4 shooting guard and Dee Dee Davis, small forward at 5-4, are lights out shooters,”Conder says. “Senior Marissa Rasior has the ablity to play all five positions and is a terrific defender.”

Shelby suffered a major setback, however, when senior Hannah Stucker went down with an anterior cruciate ligament injury and could be out for the season.

“We feel by the end of the year we will have an opportunity to win the district and region,” Conder says. “With that being said Anderson is still the champions of the district and Spencer is still a very capable team that continues to improve.”

If you are looking for a sleeper, Walton-Verona could fill that role. Unknown to most of the region, Walton-Verona has been known for routinely pulling upsets at tournament time. Walton-Verona might have the firepower to go beyond that stage this year with Kelli Dixon, a 5-11 junior that also is drawing some consideration as the region's best player.

“Walton will be a definite sleeper,” says Simon Kenton's Stowers. “They have size, guard play and by playing a lot of young kids last year gained experience and depth.Not to mention the great job that Cory Miller does as their coach.”

“The Region does seem to be wide open. It will come down to who executes their system the best and can apply it during tournament time,” Stowers says.

“South Oldham and Simon Kenton are favorites in the region in my opinion,” says Shelby's Conder, “ but I still feel that there are several good teams that will compete for the chance to go to Diddle.”

Herndon's top eight teams

(Last year's records in parentheses)

1.Simon Kenton (28-5)

Why the Pioneers can win it: Play defense with a passion, Jeff Stowers has a great system for his team. The expectation of winning. Why they won't: Chelsea Tolliver graduated.

2.South Oldham (18-12)

Why the Dragons can win it: Lots of talent, the most experienced starting lineup in the region. Jordann McGuffin and Jasmine Whitfield are the best 1-2 punch in the region. Why they won't: No real takeover player like Lauren Jones or Ashley Trosper.

3.Owen County (19-8)

Why the Rebels can win it: Rianna Gayheart can flat play. Supporting cast is good. It's just time for one of the smaller schools to win it. Why they won't: Is the supporting cast strong enough to overcome an off game from the star?

4.Anderson County (20-7)

Why the Lady Cats can win it: Though extremely young, the Lady Bearcats probably have the best talent in the region. Why the Lady Cats won't: A killer schedule takes a psychological toll Anderson. Teams playing three to five middle schoolers in key varsity roles just don't win regional titles.

5.Shelby County (9-17)

Why the Lady Rockets can win it: Strong tradition, strong guard play, freshman Aaliyah Wells is the real deal. It is foolish to overlook them. Why they won't: Some solid players, but not enough weapons.

6.Oldham County (13-16)

Why the Colonels can win it: One of the more experienced teams in the region and good size. Why they won't: No proven point guard. Learning a third system in three years.

7.Walton-Verona (15-13)

Why the Lady Bearcats can win it: Kelli Dixon might be the region's best player and good enough to carry her team on her shoulders. Supporting cast is underrated. Why they won't: Not enough weapons to overcome an off game by Dixon.

8.Carroll County (18-12)

Why the Panthers can win it: Solid guard play, led by the underrated Hannah Devine. Coach Randy Mefford is one of the region's best. Why they won't: Just not enough firepower beyond Devine.

Top 10 players

(Picking the top player is about like picking the top team. I believe you can make a case for the top fou to all be the top player inthe region.)

1.Kelli Dixon, Walton-Verona

Comment: Might be the best player that most in the state have never heard of. Dixon has few weaknesses.

2.Sydni Wainscott, Simon Kenton

Tough and experienced. Not a superstar but does many things well.

3.Rianna Gayheart, Owen County

Some tout as the region's best player. Outstanding guard.

4.Jordann McGuffin, South Oldham

Steady and knows how to win.

5.Tori Wilhoite, Williamstown

Coach's daughter does a lot of things well.

6.Jasmine Whitfield, South Oldham

Gifted athlete, has the potential to takc over a game.

7.Hannah Devine, Carroll County

Her surname describes her shooting touch.

8.Kara Yeaste, Anderson County

Underrated player who does many things well. Great athlete.

9.Sydney Brown, Anderson County

Has the potential to dominate in the paint.

10.Emily Lape, Oldham County

Rugged, veteran player that will be called upon to lead Oldham.