A handful of girls’ basketball teams can write down “WIN STATE CHAMPIONSHIP” on the chalkboard on the first day of practice and reasonably expect to contend for it.
Make no mistake, the Mercer County Lady Titans believe themselves to be one of those teams. And if they do so, it won’t be because of wishful thinking, it will be because they’ve put themselves through the toughest schedule anyone could imagine.
This weekend, the defending 12th Region champs fly to Phoenix, Ariz., to participate in the Nike Tournament of Champions, a four-day invitation-only event featuring 84 of the nation’s top high school teams.
“We’re trying to win a state championship. That’s what we want to do,” said Coach Chris Souder, whose Titans (3-1) were ranked No. 2 in the coaches’ Kentucky preseason poll. “And, also, I’ve got kids that want to play college basketball. What better way to get them some exposure, nationally, not just here, locally?”
Mercer drew perhaps the toughest bracket of the Phoenix event. Seven of the 16 teams they could face rank among the nation’s top 25, according to USA Today’s Expert Rankings. Their first-round opponent Monday? No. 5 Centennial out of Las Vegas.
“I had a guy from MaxPreps call me the other day and tell me, ‘Don’t panic if you go out there and go 0-4,’” Souder said. “That’s how tough it is. It’s the best tourney in the country. He said, ‘I’ve seen a lot of teams go 0-4 and then come back and win the state championship.’”
We’re trying to win a state championship. That’s what we want to do. And, also, I’ve got kids that want to play college basketball. What better way to get them some exposure, nationally, not just here, locally?
The Titans return home Dec. 23, get Christmas off and then head right back on the road, this time eight hours via bus to the Pink and White Lady Classic in Springfield, Mo., where they could face two-time defending Texas 4A champion Argyle and a number of top Missouri teams. It was another offer Souder couldn’t pass up.
“I was kind of a little reluctant to do both, because the Phoenix one was pretty expensive. We’ve had to do a lot of fund-raising, but the one in Springfield, they help you out quite a bit,” Souder said. “We just thought ‘why not?’”
After that gantlet, Mercer returns to Kentucky and takes on defending state champion and preseason No. 1 Butler on the road Jan. 7 and goes to state finalist and preseason No. 3 Franklin County on Jan. 12. Franklin is the team that ended Mercer’s Sweet Sixteen run last year in the state semis.
“We’ll be battle-tested by March,” Souder said. “Our record might not be near as good as it has been in the past, but I’m willing to sacrifice that if we can get to our goal. We still may not, but I want to give our kids every opportunity to get there.”
The core of Souder’s team are juniors and all have Division I offers. Leading scorer Seygan Robins, one of Souder’s two nieces playing for him, picked Louisville this summer. Sisters Lexy and Faith Lake and Emma Davis have chosen Southeast Missouri State. And Souder’s other niece, Emma Souder, is considering a number of schools, he said. Senior Lyric Houston has also been a huge part of their success, averaging 11.5 points last season, but her first love is softball, where she’s a standout shortstop.
Mercer opened the season at the Hoops for Harvest event at Dixie Heights against Hamilton Heights Christian Academy (Chattanooga, Tenn.), now ranked seventh in USA Today’s list. The Titans lost 76-65.
“We competed. That’s really what I want. I want us to compete. It’s not about wins and losses,” Souder said.
Robins said the team understands what their coach is doing with the brutal schedule.
“I’m very excited just to see how we can match up and see how well we can do,” she said. Robins was encouraged despite the loss against Hamilton Heights. “I thought we played really well as a team. It just helped expose some of our weaknesses that we need to work on.”
The Titans, like many of Kentucky’s top teams, have a fast-paced attack that constantly harasses, defensively, and chucks three-pointers like there’s no tomorrow, offensively. Five players had more than 100 three-point attempts last season led by Lexy Lake who went 87-for-242, a 36 percent clip. Everyone on the team practices three-pointers and has a green light to let them fly.
“We want to get farther than the Final Four.” Faith Lake said. “We were this close, and I feel like it gives us that extra push on stuff in practice and makes us go harder ... and hopefully helps us bring home a state championship.”
We competed. That’s really what I want. I want us to compete. It’s not about wins and losses.
Chris Souder, Mercer County Lady Titans coach
For Souder, the big holiday trip also gives the younger players, the middle-schoolers and freshmen, exposure to big-time high school basketball where they can see the work ethic of their team leaders and the quality opponents they will face.
“We take every kid in our whole program, from middle school on up, 21 players,” Souder said. “I’m big on when we take trips, and we ask money from the booster club, I don’t like the younger kids to raise money if they’re not going to be a part of it. I think it’s a great experience and just helps our program.”
To raise funds (about $1,000 per player for the Phoenix trip), you’re not just selling candy bars. You’re also hosting AAU tournaments and having Lady Titans nights at local restaurants. For Souder, it’s all worth it.
“High school sports is a great thing to get kids as much experience as you can,” he said. “And we’ve been to the Bahamas. We’ve taken some great trips here.”
Souder led the Lady Titans to the Sweet Sixteen in 2003, 2015 and 2016 and has had at least 20 wins in 13 of his 16 seasons. When asked when he knew this group of juniors would be special, he said: “when they were fifth-graders.” Robins and Davis played with the freshmen and junior varsity as sixth-graders. The rest have been part of the program since seventh grade.
As eighth-graders, they were part of a team that went 28-6 and lost in the 12th Region finals. As freshmen, they helped the Titans to a 29-4 record and lost to Elizabethtown in the first round of the Sweet Sixteen. As sophomores, they went 31-6 and lost to Franklin County in the state Final Four.
Now, as juniors, they have a chance to keep building on that legacy.
“This group that I have right now, in my opinion, for a small, rural school, all homegrown kids … it’s just a unique, once-in-a-lifetime deal for a high school coach,” Souder said.