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Hamlin, Mercer County players cope with stunning loss

SOMERSET – Josh Hamlin told his players the same thing he tells them after every game. What else could he say?

This was no ordinary game, of course. Mercer County had lost the regional title in the most heartbreaking way imaginable, and Hamlin didn’t have the words to console his players the way he wanted to.

So when the Titans returned to their locker room after their 48-46 loss to Southwestern in the boys 12th Region Tournament final, when they struggled to deal with the pain of losing on a last-second layup, he had a familiar but heartfelt message for them.

“Same thing I tell them after every game: I love them. I appreciate them. I just appreciate them letting me be their coach,” Hamlin said. “Sometimes you don’t have enough words, sometimes you don’t have the right words. A hug, a handshake, a little bit of tears and a little bit of love, that’s just what our program is built on.”

Hamlin knew full well what the Titans were going through, and he knew there wasn’t much he could do to ease their pain.

Eleven years ago, Hamlin was a senior on a Corbin team that lost the 13th Region title by two points on its home floor when South Laurel’s Ty Proffitt scored with three seconds to play.

“I’ve been in their shoes,” Hamlin said. “I’ve (cried) the tears, not wanted to take the uniform off. I remember what it’s like, and my heart goes out to them.”

Of course, the loss hit Mercer’s five seniors hardest. They were looking to lead the Titans to the Boys Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, and instead they came up short in the regional finals for the second year in a row.

The wild ride they had been on came to a sudden, stunning end at Pulaski County when Mercer squandered a 13-point lead in less than four minutes, then saw a turnover lead to a layup by Southwestern’s Logan Dykes as time expired.

Some of those seniors have been part of the team for only one season, while Trevon Faulkner, the team’s longest-tenured player, played for six varsity seasons. And the program has had four coaches in the last five seasons, and three coaches in less than one calendar year.

Through it all, the Titans have been winning. They have gone 108-25 over the last four seasons, they won a regional title in 2016 and reached the regional finals in 2017 before Hamlin, who was an assistant with the Mercer girls last year, was hired to lead them.

“It’s hard because they went through – most of them – three coaches in a year,” Hamlin said. “They took a shot on a young guy, they gave me everything they had, and I’m super appreciative of them, and whatever success we have in the future here will be because of them.”

More success may be in the future for the Titans and for Hamlin, but the coach said he’ll miss the dynamic his first Mercer team had.

“I’m going to miss all their smiles, all their laughs, the times in the coach’s office that we were cutting up. It’s just a special class,” he said. “I hate that it ended for them this way, but if it can help them later in life down the road, it might serve a purpose.”