The Franklin County girls’ basketball team went 35 seasons between Sweet Sixteen appearances before narrowly reaching it last year on a pair of Dasia Kilbourne free throws with five seconds left in the 11th Region finals.
A return trip may not be so harrowing. The No. 8 Flyers defeated Henry Clay, the team Kilbourne’s free throws knocked out and whom many think will vie for the 11th crown again, on its home floor by double digits on Thursday. They’re 4-0 against 11th Region competition and 11-1 overall.
The one loss was to No. 20 Ryle on Jan. 2. That came just three days after Franklin won the Sunshine Classic in Daytona, Fla., and were still recovering from the 16-hour bus ride home. “We came back from Florida awfully tired and lethargic and that showed,” Coach Joey Thacker said. “Take nothing away from Ryle, they hit us in the mouth and we took it.”
Of course, the Flyers aren’t assigning final blame to anyone but themselves.
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“We were just really sluggish,” said junior Rebecca Cook. “There’s no excuse. We just could never get anything going and we weren’t hitting shots. It was a rough game for us.”
Franklin will get a second shot against the Raiders in the Toyota Classic at Scott County on Jan. 22. “We’ll be ready,” Princess Stewart said.
Stewart is getting looks from Florida State, Cincinnati and WKU, among others. The junior, who leads Franklin at 17 points a game, plans to wait until after the summer or maybe even into next season before making a college decision. For now she’s focused on leading a Flyers team that went from prey to predator.
She acknowledged it’s tough playing with a target on their backs.
“We’ve got to take it one game at a time and worry about that game that night,” Stewart said. “Once that game’s over with we worry about the next game.”
Thacker, in his 13th year at Franklin County, would put his team’s schedule up against anyone’s. The Flyers have defeated No. 11 Manual on a neutral court and easily dispatached 10th Region contenders Campbell County and Clark County.
He thought the slate was going to be “a little tougher on the front end than it turned out being,” but the latter half ought to make up for it: in addition to the rematch with Ryle, they go to No. 2 Mercer County on Thursday and host No. 1 Elizabethtown on Feb. 12. Games against 11th Region dark horses Bryan Station and Scott County are also on the horizon.
Going from 86 degrees to near freezing temeperatures might have sapped them a bit, but the trip to Florida was a success in bringing the girls closer together for a run they hope ends deep in March. Thacker wanted to reward his players “that have done so much for our program.”
It’s a balanced group. Cook averages 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. Seniors Anna Arrastia (a Georgetown College signee), Malaka Frank and Kilbourne all are hovering above or right below eight points a game. “I think we just have a bunch that’s got a lot of grit and they’ve kind of shown that all the way through middle school,” Thacker said. “That’s what makes them special.”
Frank, who’s signed with WKU, exemplifies that grit. She averages 7.1 rebounds and gets after her assignments in the Flyers’ press-heavy coverage. Defense was the first word that came out of her mouth when asked about her biggest strengths.
The Flyers’ No. 1 goal, Stewart said, is getting back to the big dance. Frank said it won’t be easy, but they’re in a good spot because of their experience.
“We’ve already show what we can do,” Frank said. “If we play how we know how to play then it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Franklin County’s 20-win seasons
The Franklin County girls have won 20 or more games in a season 15 times in program history, including six straight under Coach Joey Thacker.
1980: 32-6 (lost in Sweet Sixteen finals)
2015: 26-7 (lost in Sweet Sixteen first round)