STANFORD — After Wayne County beat Southwestern 51-35 for the 12th Region championship Tuesday night, Cardinals Coach Rodney Woods felt sweet satisfaction, not for himself, but for his four seniors.
When they were eighth-graders, Gavin Dunagan, Austin Shearer and twins Kyle and Ryan Hopper won a middle school state title that fostered great expectations at Wayne County.
"There's been unreal pressure on them ever since then," Woods said. "People thought they were just going to walk through it. But daggone, they went through a lot."
The fab four played in five district finals and lost four of them, including one to Southwestern this year. They made the region every March, but they couldn't get over the hump in the semifinals.
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Until Tuesday night.
Those middle school dreams finally became a high school reality when they cut down the nets in the Lincoln County gym.
Shearer, who contributed 12 points to the victory, said it was about time.
"After we won the state as eighth-graders, we thought for sure we'd go to Rupp one day. That's the big show.
"We worked four years for this. The difference this year was our attitude. We played more physical and just refused to lose."
Dunagan, the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder who had 17 points and 10 rebounds in the region finals, said persistence paid off: "We kept at it and kept at it, and finally did it."
Winning a region is nothing new for Woods. This is the seventh time in 23 years he's guided Wayne County to the state tournament.
The Cards (30-4) will play 14th Region champ Perry County Central (25-5) in Rupp Arena on March 17.
Woods figured Southwestern would be a tough test in the region showdown. The Warriors lost two close games to Wayne County in the regular season then upset the Cards in the district finals.
Southwestern took a quick lead Tuesday night, but then the momentum swung when Warriors point guard Cody Epperson went to the bench with two fouls.
"That took us out of our comfort zone," Coach Dave Schulz said. "We run so many things through Cody, it was tough for us to climb that mountain without him."
Dunagan went to the bench with two fouls early in the second quarter, but Wayne County still finished the half on a 16-3 run to turn a 14-10 deficit into a 26-17 lead.
Kyle Gehring delivered a big blow by banking in a three-pointer at the buzzer for Wayne County.
After Dagan Shelton opened the second half with a basket to give the Cards a 28-17 lead, Southwestern never got closer than 10.
Justin Edwards, a 6-5 freshman, had 18 points to lead the Warriors, who made a strong run in the playoffs after ending the regular season with a 12-16 record.
"It was fun and exciting to make this kind of run," Schulz said. "We struggled all year but, back in December, I told the guys there was only one date that mattered — March 8, 2011. We made it here, but just couldn't finish the deal."
Wayne County's seniors did, though, and made a bit of history by becoming the first Wayne County team to win a region as district runner-up.
"I couldn't be happier for them," Woods said.
WAYNE COUNTY (30-4) — Dunagan 17, K.Hopper 5, R.Hopper 5, Shearer 12, Shelton 7, Gehring 5.
SOUTHWESTERN (16-17) — J.Epperson 4, Edwards 18, C.Epperson 0, Schulz 3, Lewis 3, Marlow 5, Hancock 2.
Wayne County 8 18 9 16—51
Southwestern 12 5 6 12—35