SANDY HOOK — If basketball is a religion in Kentucky, then Elliott County's runnin', gunnin', lovable Lions have some of the most devout worshipers in the state.
"After watching Elliott County the last couple years, UK basketball doesn't interest me much," said Ronald Wheeler, a lifelong resident of Sandy Hook and a hoops fan most of his 73 years.
In an economically depressed area where there's not much positive news, the high school basketball team has generated pride and excitement for good reason.
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The Lions have won 100 games in the past four years, including a pair of 16th Region titles, using an up-tempo style that has led the state in scoring the last two seasons.
After recent victories over defending state champion Mason County and perennial power Ballard, they have reclaimed the No. 1 spot in Dave Cantrall's Rating the State.
"A lot of people not athletic-minded won't like what I say, but in my lifetime there hasn't been anything bigger happen in this community that this right here," Coach Rick Mays said.
Rocky Adkins, a star point guard for Elliott County more than 30 years ago and now House Democratic floor leader in Frankfort, agreed with his former coach.
"I know of nothing more excit ing that's ever happened in Elliott County that folks have been more proud of than this basketball team," he said.
Evan Faulkner, a senior guard who shares the backcourt with his identical twin Ethan, says the Lions "give everybody around here something to believe in."
But the Lions' fan base extends far beyond the borders of the county in northeastern Kentucky.
This is a basketball team that creates a buzz not just at the local Penny Mart (where the sign advertises the triple attraction of Deli/Propane/Lotto), but wherever it plays.
This is a basketball team easy to root for.
Elliott County is a small school (320 students) with a home-grown coach, home-grown assistants and home-grown players who employ a breakneck style that leaves fans as well as opponents breathless.
Two years ago the Lions became the first team in the county's history to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Last year they made a return trip to Rupp Arena and nearly upset Mason County in the first round.
This season Elliott County is better than ever, sporting a 24-2 record as tournament time approaches. With six seniors among its top eight players, the goal is to become the smallest school to win the state title since Paintsville's 1996 champs.
The Lions don't consider themselves David trying to slay the Goliaths, though.
"We lost that underdog mentality a long time ago," Evan Faulkner said. "Every time we step on the floor, we step on it to win, regardless of who we're playing."
Mays, 59, a low-key coach, said he "never cussed a kid, never said anything out of the way trying to get them to give their best effort."
Mays played for Sandy Hook in the 1960s. He took over the program in the mid-1970s after the school changed its name to Elliott County. He got out of coaching for seven years in the 1980s, but returned to the sidelines in 1990.
"Every year I put a whistle around my neck I expected us to win the region," Mays said. "That maybe wasn't realistic, but I always had hope."
His optimism took on a new shine when he saw the Faulkners and Jonathan Ferguson in grade school.
"I won't sit here and say I knew we'd go to the state tournament," Mays said. "I wasn't a prophet, but I knew it was going to be a special group."
A lot of teams espouse the "we are family" theme, but Elliott County has the bloodlines to back it up.
It has two sets of brothers in the starting lineup — the Faulkner twins and the Knipp brothers, Chris, a senior, and Timmy, a 6-foot-7 sophomore — and a legacy of Lions.
The Faulkners' dad, Kyle, played for Elliott County, as did Dale Ferguson, Jonathan's father, and Randy Flannery, father of senior reserve Jared.
Mays' assistant coaches (Greg Adkins, Joe Markwell, Roy Whitt and Matthew Spencer) all played for him.
"We're like one big family," Mays said.
A family that plays together wins together, especially if the players are talented.
Ferguson, a 6-2 senior, has no conscience when it comes to firing three-pointers. "Whether I've missed 10 in a row or hit 10 in a row, every shot's the same," he said. "I never think about it."
His 34 points against Ballard a few days ago made him the all-time leading scorer in 16th Region history, with 3,198 points.
Ferguson is undecided on college. Marshall, Northern Kentucky and Air Force are among the schools showing interest in him.
Ethan Faulkner, who played as a seventh-grader and started at point guard as an eighth-grader, has more than 2,100 points. The Northern Kentucky University signee says the key to the Lions' success is their unity.
"The closeness of the team is unbelievable," he said. "We're best friends, inside these doors and outside."
Evan Faulkner, a Radford University signee who has also eclipsed 2,000 career points, said it's no surprise Elliott County is a state power.
"We've always been competitive across the state, going back to our middle-school AAU travel team. We've always won a lot."
The county's hoops history includes Orbie Bowling, a Sandy Hook star in the late 1950s, and Adkins, a standout in the '70s. But neither of them led the Lions to the promised land of the Sweet Sixteen.
"These kids are carrying out a dream for us that never got there," Adkins said. "When they put the uniform on, they're wearing it for all us that played there.
"And you have to love the way they play. No matter what the score, they give every ounce of effort every minute and leave their heart and soul on the court."
The Lions' hustle isn't the only thing that endears them to fans.
"They're a great group of kids," Mays said. "They're good students, very mature, very respectful.
"That's not to say we haven't bumped heads. But they're like my own kids. They aren't going to talk back to me."
Elliott County's senior night last week was a bittersweet event.
A big crowd turned out to honor the players who have lifted the program to unprecedented heights, and the coach who probably will retire when the season ends.
Everybody realizes, though, that the fabulous run is about over, and the Lions' roar might never be so loud again.
"I've thought about this day for the last two years, knowing how tough it'd be to see this group go," Mays said a few minutes before the farewell ceremony. "I'll try to be strong, but it won't be easy, and it won't be easy for the community."
Having reached Rupp Arena the past two years, Mays already has memories to last a lifetime.
"Somebody told me I'd wake up probably two or three years after I retire and really see the scope of the situation," he said. "That was my dream ... to walk on that floor with my team."
But everybody in Elliott County would love to see the Lions make one more run at the Sweet Sixteen and cap it off with a state title.
"This community has never had a team come through here like this, that they can watch and cheer for, that's been as competitive statewide as we are," Ethan Faulkner said.
"This is what they've been waiting on, and they're living the dream with us."