Mercer County girls itching to return to state tournament

Published 3:31 pm Thursday, February 15, 2018

They have seen it all, done it all, won it all. Now all the Mercer County girls want is to win it again.

With postseason play just around the corner, the Titans are in one sense right back where they were this time a year ago, charting a course that they hope will lead them to a second state championship some 3 1/2 weeks from now.

In another sense, however, they are in a very different place as defending state champions – a little smarter, a little stronger and perhaps even better prepared for what lies ahead.

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“We’re all mentally stronger, we’re all physically stronger and we all have worked harder this year as a whole team,” said Emma Davis, one of Mercer’s five seniors. “We keep putting in work every single day, and we’re getting great things out of it.”

Mercer (26-3) has one regular-season game remaining Friday at Southwestern, after which its title defense begins in earnest Monday with a 46th District Tournament semifinal against Burgin at West Jessamine.

The 12th Region Tournament opens Feb. 26 at Lincoln County, and the Girls Sweet 16 opens March 7 in Highland Heights.

“It’s a little bit different this year because we did win it last year,” Mercer coach Chris Souder said. “We’ve never been in this situation before, so it’s kind of uncharted waters. But we told the kids we’re going to approach it the exact same way we did last year. We’re not going to overlook anybody, we’re going to respect everybody, and we’ll see where it takes us.

“That’s the approach we’re going to take. If somebody beats us, they’re going to have to be playing great. If we’re playing great, they’re just better than us that night. And if that happens, so be it.”

Experience counts for something of course, and the Titans have plenty of that. They have gone 23-2 in postseason games since 2015 and 30-4 since the team’s five seniors first played varsity in 2012-13, and they are prohibitive favorites to add to their strings of three straight 12th Region titles and nine straight 46th District titles.

They should also benefit from the experience of another challenging schedule that has taken them to elite events in four states and paired them with four of the other nine teams in the current Associated Press top 10 – where they were ranked No. 2 this week – against whom they have gone 5-1.

“I think our experience is what’s helped us the most. We’ve played some very tough teams these past two years that have really prepared us for district and region and state,” senior Emmy Souder said. “We’ve been put in a bunch of different situations where it’s tested us and taught us what not to do, and so in the future at region and hopefully state we’ll know what to do.”

Chris Souder said that experience is the Titans’ edge.

“You can’t put a price tag on the experience they’ve gotten the last two years, getting beat in the final four two years ago and then winning it last year. And even when (Elizabethtown) drubbed them (in the first round) when they were freshmen, we told them then, ‘This is all a process,” he said. “They’ve taken a little bit from all of that, and that’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve got over everybody else is experience.”

There are district and regional tournament games ahead that no objective observer will expect Mercer to lose, but the Titans haven’t gotten where they are by taking such games lightly.

“I think we’ve learned that we can’t take anyone for granted or discount anyone. We can be beaten on any given night, so we’ve got to come ready to play every day,” senior Lexy Lake said. “Most nights we do. We’ve had a couple times when I think we weren’t really to go, but overall I think we come ready to play.”

“This is a humble bunch, so it’s not hard to keep them grounded,” Chris Souder added.

Mercer wrapped up its home schedule Monday with an 80-56 victory over Russell County. Fittingly, the team’s five seniors – Davis, Faith Lake, Lexy Lake, Seygan Robins and Emmy Souder – finished the game on the court, dribbling out the clock to a standing ovation. Another senior, manager Danielle Mays, stretched her foot onto the court from the sideline as a way of joining them as the final seconds ticked away.

“We grew up here, and we’ve played in this gym since sixth grade, so it means a lot to finish with a good win,” Davis said.

“Especially with us all being best friends, I think it’s pretty awesome that we can all do it together and finish where we started,” Faith Lake added.

The Titans won all eight of their home games this season by an average margin of 25 points. They have won 22 straight home games since a January 2016 loss to Butler, and the five seniors went 69-4 at home in their six varsity seasons.

“I think it just proves that we put in a lot of hard work. We come ready to work every day. We have a lot of dedication. We just love playing together,” Lexy Lake said.

Now they set out on the road to a repeat, trying to become the first team to win consecutive state championships since Lexington Catholic won three straight titles in 2005-07.

Robins said they have a better handle on what to expect along the tournament trail than they did a year ago, as well as a better handle on themselves.

“I think mentally we’re just little but more mature,” she said. “We’ve been to state every year since freshman year, so we know what it’s about, and we know what it’s going to take and how much effort it’s going to take to get back to where we were last year.”

Chris Souder said he knows the seniors more than anything, though they almost never talk about it.

“They know what’s at stake,” he said. “Being seniors, and with everything they’ve accomplished, they just want to go out on top. And they know how difficult it’s going to be.”

Robins said she and her classmates have at least as much desire as they had a year ago, if not more.

“I definitely think it’s as strong,” Robins said. “Last year it was strong because we’d never won it before. This year it’s just as strong because it’s our last year and we definitely want to win it all again.”