New Belfry coach having a ball
Rick Mounts, in his first season as Belfry girls' basketball coach, inherited a team that finished 6-21 last season.
Now, the Lady Pirates are 15th Region champs, set to meet Scott County in the state tournament.
"It's a shock to everybody," Mounts said of his team advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. "The first day of practice I told the girls: 'Why not Belfry? Why can't Belfry win the 15th Region?'
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"They kind of looked at me like 'we've got a coach who's lost his mind.'"
No, they had a former coal miner who'd found three starters that were missing from the previous season.
Alexis Howard (shoulder) and Amy McCoy (ankle) missed most of last season due to injury. Meghan Staten opted not to play after being on the team as a freshman and sophomore.
Now, Howard and McCoy are healthy. Staten, who played under Mounts when he coached the volleyball team, returned to basketball.
Also in the starting lineup are Jacklyn Stack and scoring leader Jillnell Bevins (22.8 ppg).
Mounts worked in the coal industry for 20 years — 10 years underground in the mines and 10 years up top in an office — in Pike County and adjacent Mingo County, W.Va.
That real-world know-how is bolstered by what Mounts calls "a tremendous coaching staff" in David Hatfield, Amanda Hensley and the new Pikeville College volleyball coach, Anna Bevins. Hatfield won three state titles and more than 300 games as boys' coach with nearby Williamson, W.Va.
When the coaches speak, the players listen. They work. And now they find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen.
"Each game they started believing a little more," Mounts said on Tuesday. "I kept them believing in themselves and they've carried that on."
Rockcastle County has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen five times before and each time they have lost in the first round.
Coach Chrysti Noble said that losing streak weighs heavily on her and her fifth-ranked Rockets, who meet No. 17 Murray in Thursday's opener.
"They want to be the first to do something and make noise when they go to the state tournament. ... They seem pretty focused."
Clark finds way back
Back in January, Clark County didn't have the look of a team that would end the program's 15-year Sweet Sixteen drought.
The Lady Cardinals were laboring along with a 6-9 record. Then, out of nowhere, something clicked.
Clark County won 12 of its final 13 games, including a 48-35 win over five-time defending 10th Region champion Montgomery County, to earn its first trip to the state tournament since 1995.
Defense became Clark County's calling card. The Lady Cards have allowed their opponents to reach double figures in a quarter just twice in the post-season.
That defensive intensity is sparked by 5-foot-7 junior guard Preshia Rogers, who averages nearly three steals a game.
"She handles the point for us, and she tends not to be real vocal," said Clark County Coach Scott True. "But when we need something, that's where we're looking."