In 2004-05, Rockcastle County was the overwhelming favorite, and the Lady Rockets didn't disappoint. Ditto for Clay County in 2005-06.
Picking a favorite to represent the region in Bowling Green in 2007 isn't quite so easy. As many as five teams could stake a legitimate claim as regional contenders, including three of the final four teams from this year's regional tournament.
But someone's got to pick a favorite, and since I took the mantle of girls basketball guru from John Henson last year, the task falls to me - so here's what I've decided:
The South Laurel Lady Cardinals are primed for a run to Bowling Green in 2007.
Before we get too involved in looking ahead, however, here's our annual look back at the region's best players:
G - Jayme Gilbert, Clay County
G - Wendi Messer, Knox Central
F - Sierra Wynn, Cawood
F - Brooke Smith, Bell County
F - Amber Neace, South Laurel
G - Kourtney Tyra, Jackson County
G - Heather Clouse, Corbin
F - Stephanie McCullah, Whitley County
F - Brooklyn Jimison, Middlesboro
F - Lauren Wombles, South Laurel
G - Sophie Robinson, Middlesboro
G - Caitie Jackson, North Laurel
G - Mikkah Rogers, Corbin
F - Katie Akins, Corbin
C - Kendra Latham, Harlan
G - Brittany Jackson, Corbin
G - Emily Boggs, Cawood
F - Gemma Gray, Clay County
F - Kayla Haynes, Whitley County
C - Erika Letanosky, Cumberland
Wendi Messer, Knox Central; Stephanie McCullah, Whitley County; Erika Letanosky, Cumberland; Whitney Smith, South Laurel; Brittany Jackson, Corbin
Brooklyn Jimison, Middlesboro; Lauren Wombles, South Laurel; Mikkah Rogers, Corbin; Emily Boggs, Cawood; Callie Mills, Barbourville
Kourtney Tyra, Jackson County; Sophie Robinson, Middlesboro; Gemma Gray, Clay County; Shaleesha Coleman, Middlesboro; Caitie Jackson, North Laurel
Coach of the year
Donnie Gray, Clay County
Predictions for 2006-07 (players are listed by grades for the upcoming season):
1. South Laurel - The Lady Cardinals lose one of the region's top players in forward Amber Neace, but they will hardly be without weapons.
Junior Lauren Wombles (11.3) provides a strong rebounding presence and is a shooting threat from virtually anywhere on the floor, and when she gets hot, senior Whitney Smith (10.2) can be deadly from long range. The return of junior center Devia Burchett from injury should boost the Lady Cardinals' strength in the post and go a long way toward replacing the prowess of Neace.
On top of its offensive abilities, South Laurel has a vicious full-court press that can give an opposing coach nightmares. And the Lady Cards have Sweet 16 experience, having won the 12th Region in 2005 before moving to the 13th.
All this could add up to another trip a year from now.
2. Middlesboro - My projection for the Lady Jackets is largely based upon the fact they lost less than any other regional contender.
Middlesboro will have to replace senior forward Mary Flanary, who provided a strong rebounding and defensive presence. Junior Ashley Williams (3.3) will probably move into Flanary's spot.
Other than that, the Lady Jackets' lineup should remain intact, with junior Brooklyn Jimison (11.8) returning at center, and senior Emily Osborne (5.2) and sophomores Sophie Robinson (10.7) and Shaleesha Coleman (8.2) in the backcourt.
Middlesboro's full-court press and rebounding should be as strong as last year. The Lady Jackets' biggest question mark is their shooting consistency, and perhaps another year of growth and experience will go a long way toward fixing that.
3. Corbin - The Lady Redhounds came up just short the last two seasons, falling to Rockcastle in the semis in 2005 and to Clay in the championship game this year. A number of key losses will make it even harder for Corbin to take the final step in 2007.
The Lady Redhounds lose three starters, including guard Heather Clouse and forward Katie Akins, two of the team's top three scorers. Junior Mikkah Rogers suffered an ankle injury in this year's regional tournament and is expected to be sidelined for three to six months. Her rehabilitation will be critical to the Lady Hounds' chances.
On the plus side, senior Brittany Jackson provides a steady point guard and a strong defensive presence, and it seems likely that her scoring will increase in ‘07. She will likely be joined in the starting lineup by juniors Abby Baylor and Rikki Walden, both of whom saw significant action during this year's regional tournament.
The Lady Redhounds been extremely successful the past two seasons despite the lack of a clear leader on the court as they've opted for more of a team approach. If Jackson and Rogers take to their new leadership roles, Corbin could still hold its own against district rival South Laurel and make a postseason run of its own.
4. Clay County - With all-state point guard Jayme Gilbert and longtime coach Donnie Gray both bowing out this year, it seems unusual to say that experience will be the Lady Tigers' biggest asset in 2007. But that seems to be the case.
Senior Page Jackson and junior Stephanie Jackson will provide strong outside shooting threats, and senior Maleah Roberts will be back for her third season as a starter in the post. Sophomore Gemma Gray will probably be the team's best all-around player, providing an outside shooting touch and enough size to dominate on the glass as well.
While Gilbert will be extremely difficult to replace, it's the loss of Gray, a 500-game winner and certain future Hall-of-Famer, that will probably hurt Clay the most. Under Gray, the Lady Tigers were almost perennial contenders.
Still, the bulk of Clay's team won an AAU national championship two years ago, and to discount the Lady Tigers would be a mistake - even without their star and their legend.
5. Whitley County - The Lady Colonels might the region's fifth-best team, but unfortunately, they're likely to be the third-best in the loaded 50th District, which could make a trip to Bowling Green a monumental task.
Senior guard/forward Stephanie McCullah is a versatile scoring threat who can drive to the basket or drain the 3-pointer with equal ease. Junior Amanda Brimm developed into a solid post presence this season, and her continued improvement will help Whitley overcome the loss of Kayla Haynes.
Sophomore Kayla Osborne returns at point guard. She will likely be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Holly Jones, who was the Lady Colonels' top reserve in 2006. Junior forward Randal Holbrook will likely round out the starting lineup.
Whitley has been hit hard by graduation for two straight seasons now, and with McCullah entering her final season, the time is now if the Lady Colonels are to make a regional title run. It'll have to start with a strong district showing, however.
6. Knox Central - Senior guard Wendi Messer should earn most preseason accolades as the region's top player. Messer can do it all on the court and likely has a future at the next level.
While Messer garners most of the attention, the Lady Panthers have built a solid team around her. Junior point guard Ashley Sizemore proved herself to be an offensive threat and a strong defender, as well. Junior Kayla Wilburn and sophomore Brittany Jordan are also capable of pouring in double figures on any given night if teams focus too much on Messer.
Playing in the 51st District means the Lady Panthers are almost certain to get to the regional tournament. However, they'll have their work cut out for them to get any further.
7. North Laurel - The Lady Jaguars battled through a rebuilding season in 2006 and still reached the regional tournament. They should get there again next season.
North Laurel is still a young team - sophomores Caitie Jackson and Kayla Bargo and junior Casey Karr are the team's leading scorers.
Senior forward Stephanie Strange came on strong late in the season and was the Lady Jags' representative on the regional all-tournament team.
The Lady Jaguars played a tough schedule in 2006, with games against Perry Central and Pulaski Southwestern and holiday tournaments at Berea and Boyle County. That experience could pay off next season.
8. Bell County - The Lady Cats lose three full-time starters and one part-timer from this year's 52nd District championship squad. The biggest loss by far is the graduation of the school's all-time leading scorer, Brooke Smith, and her region-leading 23 points per game.
Still, Bell brings back some experienced contributors, particularly in the backcourt, where senior Kristen Baker and junior Ashley Frady return. Baker is a solid ball-handler, and Frady is a dangerous outside shooter.
Senior Katie Dixon is probably Bell's most Smith-like player, with the height and athleticism to play at almost any spot on the floor. Senior Tracy Laws will be the Lady Cats' top returning post player, and her continued development will be extremely important. Senior Melissa Partin played well down the stretch this year and will likely round out Bell's lineup.
The Lady Cats beat Middlesboro for the district title this year and played well before falling to Corbin in the regional semifinals. The key to the team's success in 2007 will be how well they adapt to playing without Smith.
9. Jackson County - The Lady Generals were a regional power until Sarah Elliott graduated in 2004. The last two seasons have not been nearly as kind.
Still, Jackson County showed improvement last year, with an early win over Knott Central and a surprising late one over Bell County, and seem to have turned the corner.
The Lady Generals have an emerging star in sophomore Kourtney Tyra, who has seen varsity action since the seventh grade and is already approaching 1,000 career points. Junior forward Amber Whitehead also averaged double figures in 2006.
Jackson County hasn't quite reached 49th District rivals Clay and North Laurel yet. But strange things can happen in districts that draw their tournaments instead of seeding, so if the stars align, the Lady Generals could be ready for their first regional tourney appearance in three years.
10. Harlan - While Kendra Latham was still their leading scorer and rebounder, the Lady Dragons diversified a little in 2006 - a good thing, since they'll have to play without their star in 2007.
Junior Courtney Bell was outstanding at times last season. The Lady Dragons will need more consistent play from her, but she should be the team's leader around the basket. Bell will be joined in the post by sophomore Chassidy Lawson, a part-time starter in 2006 before being slowed by a back injury.
Senior Caroline Huff proved herself to be a consistent point guard in 2006. It would be a huge plus for Harlan if Huff became a consistent scoring threat. In the absence of that, however, Harlan already has a strong outside shooting threat in sophomore Alexandria Allison.
Senior Charlene McMillen, the team's hardest worker and a tenacious defender, will likely round out the lineup.
Without a bona fide star, Harlan is likely to make up Latham's points by committee. If everyone picks up the offensive slack, the Lady Dragons might find a potent offense to go with their usually solid defense and could surprise a team or two in the district tournament.
Best of the rest: Cawood, Barbourville, Cumberland, Pineville, Evarts, Williamsburg, Lynn Camp, Red Bird and Oneida Baptist.