Sweet 16 provides lifetime memories

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — For the George Rogers Clark Lady Cardinals, a trip to the girls Sweet Sixteen at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky was an opportunity to try to finish what they started last year when they won one game before falling to eventual champ Mercer County in the quarterfinals.

For the Harlan County Lady Bears, the first trip to the Sweet Sixteen was the fulfillment of a four-year quest for many of the players who suffered through a losing season in 2015 before falling painfully close the past two years with losses to crosstown rival Harlan in the regional championship game.

For the fans of both teams, making it to the state tournament is the ultimate destination, a dream for many of the players and their parents and family through years of practice and games.

This is just really special for the girls,” said Harlan attorney Ronnie Cox, whose daughter, Lainey, is a senior forward for the Lady Bears and one of the team leaders.

“The way all the Harlan County schools have supported the girls is unbelievable. My daughter got a gift bag and note signed by her grade school teachers. I really appreciate everyone’s support for the team.”

For Tami Brock, the trip to the state tournament is sweet on two levels — as a teacher at HCHS and as the mother of point guard Phebe McHargue.

“The Lady Bears making it to the state tournament means so much to our community. It gives us something to believe in,” she said. “As a parent, I know these ball players — not just as teammates of Phebe’s, but as friends. I also know many of them as students. I can tell you there are no role models out there more positive than this group of young women. The history made by this team will eventually become a story these girls can one day share with their own families.”

Susan Flowers was near the front row of the George Rogers Clark cheering section on Wednesday, enjoying the experience of a second straight Sweet Sixteen that included her daughters, Jasmine Flowers and Tyra Flowers. She said the state tournament experience has helped bring the community and the student body, which is making the adjustment to a new school that doesn’t yet have a complete sports complex.

“It’s been amazing and it’s great to see the kids at the school get to come here and be together,” she said. “We don’t have a gym at the school yet where we can have a pep rally, so this is great. They are building a new sports complex at our school.”

Brock said this year’s HCHS helped build on the proud tradition of the county in athletics.

“The tradition of sports that was brought into the building 10-11 years ago was rich in history and pride. The girls establishing a win at region added to that previous history and strengthened it,” she said. “It made our girls have a permanent place in their own school sports history.”

George Rogers Clark also has a proud sports tradition, especially in girls basketball.

“(Coach) Robbie (Graham) says every year, ‘new roster, same goal.’ That’s his motto every year,” said Flowers, who works at Sheare Elementary School as a mental health therapist with Mountain Comprehensive Care. “We lost a couple of key players last year, but the kids have stepped up. I think we’ll be just as good next year with only one starter graduating.”

Graham also loves the community involvement that having a team make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

“We had great fan support at the regional, even when people didn’t pick up against (No. 1) Campbell County, and it carried over to here,” he said. “It’s not a bad drive here from Winchester, so when you have a good following it helps.”

When his Lady Cardinals fell behind early, the experience of playing in the state tournament helped, according to Graham.

“The girls have been here and been through the wars,” he said. “Our schedule prepared us as much or more than last year. We played so many good teams to prepare us for postseason play.”

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley was on his way to the game Wednesday as he noted traveling to the state tournament in March was becoming a habit. The Harlan High School girls represented the 13th Region the past two years and the HCHS boys made their first trip last season.

“The Harlan County Lady Bears making it to the Sweet 16 marks the fourth team from our county in three years to make it to this stage. That’s a phenomenal accomplishment and means a great to deal to our people. These terrific young people have done a tremendous job representing our county and we couldn’t be more proud of them.

“It’s been another exciting year of basketball in Harlan County. Seeing all four teams make it to the regional tournament was another great success for Harlan County. It speaks volumes about the talent that we have in our schools, the dedication we have on our coaching staffa and the loyal fan bases that have been there all season supporting these teams.”