If 12th Region boys' basketball seems to have a bit of a swagger this new year, well, it's earned the right to puff out its chest a little.
The region hoisted a few trophies the week after Christmas and, as a result, three of its teams were in Dave Cantrall's first top 25 of the season: No. 11 Lincoln County, No. 12 Wayne County and No. 19 Southwestern.
Cantrall's computer data also indicate that when it comes to overall strength, the 12th is the third-deepest region in the state. It has six teams with a power rating of 70.0 or better.
Only the traditionally powerful 7th and 11th regions boast more. Boyle County, Mercer County and West Jessamine are part of the 12th's depth.
"This has always been a good basketball region with a lot of good coaches, but the talent's not quite been like this before," Southwestern Coach Steve Wright said.
Lincoln County Coach Jeff Jackson has the same take: "Top to bottom, the region is deep. and it's strong. Somebody was saying the other day, one through eight, on any given night, one can beat eight, whoever eight is. There a lot of really good teams and a lot of parity."
Consider these highlights from the Christmas break:
Lincoln County won the Gateway Holiday Classic at Montgomery County.
Southwestern won its own Lake Cumberland Holiday Hoops Classic.
West Jessamine won the Berea Holiday Classic.
Wayne County won its own Monticello Banking Company Holiday Classic.
Boyle County made it to the semifinals of the Traditional Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic.
Lincoln County is led by senior stars Jacob Conway and Timmy Taylor. Conway is averaging 21 points and nine rebounds. Taylor, a heady point guard, is averaging nine assists and could become the school's all-time leader in that category. "He controls the game as well as anybody," Jackson said.
Two-time defending region champ Wayne County relies on senior Peyton Woods (23 ppg), and juniors Trey Blevins (19 ppg) and Corey Stearns (18.5 ppg).
The Cardinals won their first 24 games last season and finished 31-2. They're 7-4 this winter against a much tougher schedule.
"I think we're finally starting to find our way around," said Coach Rodney Woods, who got his 600th Wayne County victory last week. (He has an overall career record of 808-379 in 38 years).
Southwestern, which beat preseason top 10 Hopkinsville in the finals of its holiday tournament, is the deepest team in the region. Wright said the team's success is built on the leadership of seniors Adam Isaacs and Dylan Gaskin.
But young players like sophomores Peyton Gover (transfer from Pulaski County) and Hunter Cromer, and freshmen Steven Fitzgerald, Logan Dykes and Danny Butt provide the Warriors with plenty of firepower. "We've still got a long way to go to get where we need to be," Wright said.
The 12th Region Tournament at Lincoln County probably will be more competitive than it's ever been.
"Nobody's gonna get a good draw," Wright said. "Because the region's that good. It's as tight as I've ever seen it."
■ It's been a difficult week for Wayne County. Mark Hodges, who's driven the boys' basketball team bus the past 15 years, was killed in an automobile accident Monday.
"A lot of times your driver becomes kind of like a coach, but Mark was more like one of the players," Coach Rodney Woods said. "He cut up with them and was real positive with them. The players took it from that commercial and called him 'The world's most interesting bus driver.' They had a lot of fun with him, and he always had tall tales for them. We're really going to miss him."
■ Ashland Blazer is the winningest high school basketball program in state history, with 1,918 victories.
But the Tomcats are struggling mightily this season. Buddy Biggs' team is 0-13 going into Friday's game at Russell.
"We're working hard, trying to get better in practice every day," said Biggs, who has averaged 20 wins a season since he took over the Tomcats nine years ago. "Our only focus is on the next game."
Nick Miller, who averaged 16 points last year, was Ashland's only returning starter this season. The 6-3 senior broke his foot the week before Christmas and could be out another month. His absence has left the Tomcats an inexperienced team playing what Biggs called a "brutal schedule."
The Tomcats haven't had much luck, either. They've lost three games (to Green up County, Covington Holy Cross and East Carter) that have come down to the last shot. "We're being competitive and we're getting better," Biggs said.
■ Keifer Dalton has become Clinton County's all-time leading scorer, surpassing the 1,887 points by Kenneth Conner 53 years ago. Dalton, a 6-foot senior point guard, has 1,928 points. He's also the Bulldogs' all-time leader in assists, steals, field goals and free throws.
Western Kentucky University and Lindsey Wilson have shown interest, but Clinton County Coach Todd Messer can't understand why more schools aren't after Dalton. "He's a complete player with all the intangibles and will be a terrific college point guard," Messer said.
■ Champ Ligon wasn't sure what to expect when he made the move from coaching boys' to girls' basketball two years ago. But it's been a smooth transition. He's guided Male's girls to a 12-0 record this season, and they debuted at No. 11 in Cantrall's ratings this week.
Ligon's previous head coaching job was with Bryan Station's boys. He left the Defenders in 2010. After sitting out the next season, he was a boys' assistant at Manual for two years before taking over the girls' program.
"There are some differences in dealing with boys and girls, but coaching is coaching," he said. "We're playing basically the same system we did at Bryan Station and having the same results. We're winning a lot, scoring a lot, the girls are having fun and I'm having fun. It's been a blast."
Male's leading scorers — Ciaja Harbison and Emelia Sexton — are freshmen. Iliyah Green, a center who has an offer from WKU, is a junior. Ligon thinks girls, in general, are more coachable than boys, but that's changing as more girls get involved in AAU. Ligon agrees with Kobe Bryant, who last week criticized AAU basketball for giving fundamentals short shrift. "But AAU has almost become a necessary evil," Ligon said. "If kids didn't have AAU, they wouldn't be out playing ball at the park. They'd be sitting at home playing video games."
■ Whitney Creech of Jenkins hit 24 of 29 shots (1-for-3 on threes) and 15 of 20 free throws in her 64-point performance against Clintwood, Va., last week. That's fifth-most in state history among girls. McDowell's Geri Grigsby had 81 points in a game in 1975; Dorton's Beverly Smallwood had 71 in 1987; Leslie County's Heather Benton had 66 in 2004; Oneida Baptist's Melissa Brandon had 66 in 1996; and Cumberland County's Ernestine Carter had 65 in 1978. Creech, a junior, has 3,428 career points. She's averaging 40.4 points this season. Jenkins Coach Ashley Addington said that's tops in the nation, according to MaxPreps.
■ Harrison County's Trent Thompson had a school record 43 points in a loss at Cooper last week. The old mark of 42 points was shared by Kellar Works (1960) and Jerry Fogle (1993).
■ Scotty Sutton, in his 11th season as girls' coach at Sayre, got his 200th victory when the Spartans beat Bethlehem last week. Sutton won almost 250 games as Sayre's baseball coach before he resigned last spring.
■ Kentucky and Indiana square off in the 2015 Challenge Cup in New Castle, Ind., on Saturday. The Challenge Cup is sponsored by the Kentucky and Indiana basketball coaches associations and benefits each state's high school basketball hall of fame. The schedule tips off with a girls' game, followed by four boys' games. Here's the schedule: Elizabethtown girls vs. Homestead, 11 a.m.; Newport Central Catholic vs. South Knox, 1 p.m.; Southwestern vs. Scecina Memorial, 3; Wayne County vs. Hamilton Heights, 5; Scott County vs. Zionsville, 7.
■ The DMD Classic will feature four boys' games Saturday at Frankfort High School's F.D. Wilkinson Gym: Sayre vs. Riverside Christian, 3:30 p.m.; Paul Laurence Dunbar vs. Montgomery County, 5; Bryan Station vs. North Oldham, 6:30; Lafayette vs. Frankfort, 8.
■ Defending 10th Region boys' champ Campbell County plays host to Lexington Christian in the Central Bank Classic on Saturday night. CWKYT will televise that game at 8, and will air the girls' game between Harrison County and LCA at 6.
■ The 8th annual National Guard Border Bowl all-star football game between Kentucky and Tennessee is noon Saturday at University of the Cumberlands. Jim McKee of Scott County will coach the Kentucky team. For more game information, including rosters, go to Kytnborderbowl.com.
■ After playing a football schedule loaded with out-of-state teams the past few years, 23-time state champ Trinity will play mostly Kentucky competition the next two seasons. Realignment has the Shamrocks in a new district with Ballard, Eastern, Jeffersontown and Seneca. Nondistrict opponents will be Lafayette, Male, Pleasure Ridge Park and St. Xavier. Rounding out Trinity's schedule will be Ensworth (Tenn.) and Brentwood Academy (Tenn.). Trinity will host Lafayette on Sept. 4 and visit the Generals on Sept. 16, 2016.