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The changes from 2010 are not just apparent. They are striking.
It was three years ago this week that Anderson County made its last appearance in the girls' Sweet 16 with a team that was largely made up of players who had not even matriculated to the high school
Sure, three starters were high schoolers, but people were buzzing about “those eighth-graders.”
Two of them, Eriel McKee and Makenzie Cann, were starters. Several others played significant minutes for the Lady Bearcats. There was even a seventh-grader, Corrin Robinson, on the roser
A picture of that team is the first thing anyone sees when entering Lady Bearcat coach Tony Kays' office at the school. It was taken moments after they had beaten Simon Kenton for the school's first Sweet 16 trip in 32 years.
Most of the kids look like, well, middle schoolers. In Bowling Green, they ran into a big, tough and experienced Clay County team that was making its second straight Sweet 16 appearance and fourth trip in five years.
Clay eventually went on to extend that streak to four straight regional crowns and six in seven years.
“We were eighth-graders and just happy to be there,” says Cann. “We are juniors now and there is a big difference.”
Physically, the Lady Bearcats have matured. They look like young women who are now able to drive and are already thinking about prom night.
On the court, the change is just as obvious. This year's team wears red uniforms on the road as opposed to the navy blue threads they wore three years ago. More importantly, the girls who were pushed around by the rugged mountain team can now dish it out with the best of them.
And this time, Anderson is supposed to be there. The Eighth Region dynasty that was assumed in 2010 has never fully materialized, but Anderson has been ranked among the state's best teams since before the 2013 season started. Whereas the Lady Bearcats pulled an upset over Simon Kenton to win the region in 2010, they avoided the upset in overtime last week.
Kays chuckled when looking at the large photo above his desk last Friday.
“Some of them don't even look like the same girls, do they?”
If anything, just getting to the state in 2010, then the disappointments of the following two years when they lost regional tournament games in the last seconds, sweetens things for a team that has known nothing but success from the time it came together at Anderson County Middle School.
Through those middle school years, this year's junior class never lost a game to players their own age. As eighth-graders, they rolled through the middle school state tournament and were never seriously challenged on their way to a championship they won at Rupp Arena.
In fact, just a few days after that win over Whitley County Middle School, Cann and McKee led the Lady Bearcats to a season-opening win over a good Lafayette team.
Along the way, though, this current Lady Cat team has learned no matter how much success it has, the March losses leave a lasting sting. Two years ago, it was Walton-Verona hitting a shot inside the last 15 seconds to pull off a one-point win in the regional final. Last year it was Simon Kenton, a program that might have become Anderson's fiercest rival over the last five years, ending things on the Lady Bearcats' home court.
“I think it means a lot more to me now, not because I am playing more, but because I am older,” says junior forward Alex Avritt, who saw all of 29 seconds of playing time at the state in 2010. Now she starts and is often charged with guarding the opponent's best player.
“It's different,” adds guard Destiny Stewart, who will be wearing a different jersey number Wednesday night than she did three years ago. “I have a bigger role this time. We all have bigger roles.”
Back in 2010, Cann scored 20 points at Diddle Arena, but McKee, nursing an ankle sprain suffered in the regional final, scored only three after getting in early foul trouble.
Three years ago, the unquestioned leader was senior Kara Yeaste, who was named the regional tournament's Most Valuable Player. The other starters were Caroline McDowell and Sydney Brown.
Unlike then, this Anderson team is given a shot at going deep into the tournament. Most observers have penned in – not penciled – unbeaten Marion County, 35-0 and ranked in the Top 10 nationally, as a shoo-in for the championship with everyone else fighting for second place.
The problem for Anderson is that it can't take second, if Marion wins. While the winner of the Anderson-Henderson County game will be a solid favorite in the quarter-final round, Marion potentially awaits in Saturday morning's semi-final
Many figured Marion would be a state-wide dynasty, but the Lady Knights have come up short in Bowling Green the last three years. Last March, they fell in the championship game to Manual.
“Marion County is as talented as I have seen in a long time,” Kays says. Marion boasts Kentucky signees Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and is talented through the lineup.
“They seem to be very focused and realize this is their last chance,” Kays said. “On the other side of the bracket, you have Mercy and Manual playing in the first game, but both of them could come out of the bracket.”
Anderson would love to get a chance at both. While Kays admits he has been trying to get film on possible opponents down the tournament road, he says, “We have to play Henderson County first. They are very talented and will be quite a challenge.”
In other words, the Lady Bearcats can't win it all, or even get a shot at Marion, without winning the first one.
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