Statewide respect surely has arrived for East Carter’s girls basketball team.
The Lady Raiders are off to a school-best 18-1 start and this week’s No. 6 Associated Press ranking is the highest ever for the program. The only defeat came against No. 1 Elizabethtown.
“The kids have answered the bell,” said 18th-year East Carter coach Hager Easterling in assessing a team with only one senior. “It’s just a great bunch. They play together and are so unselfish. The pieces fit together very well.”
Easterling said the Lady Raiders don’t care about individual recognition and that makes his job just that much more enjoyable as a coach.
Two of East Carter’s starters, juniors Megan Stickler and Kelsey Stumbo, appeared on the cover of The Independent’s season preview.
“Megan and Kelsey didn’t know what that was,” Easterling said. “That’s the way they are. The whole group is like that.”
As for making a climb in the poll, however, it has only provided more incentive for the Lady Raiders.
“When they see that people are talking, it’s been like throwing gasoline on a fire,” Easterling said. “They are going at it harder.”
The coach said former ‘American Top 40’ radio show host Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off line of “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars” describes East Carter’s team.
“They have a great attitude and there’s a lot they want to accomplish,” Easterling said. “I guess you could just say they have their heads screwed on right.”
Depth, balance and defense are some of the team’s top calling cards.
The Lady Raiders come at opponents with a nine-player rotation. Stickler, Stumbo, senior Bryana Greenhill and freshmen Kristen Mayo and Haley Hall have started all 19 games and each averages between seven and 12 points. Juniors Abby Damron, Alexis Pennington, Kaylee Limings and Ashley Bayes lead the support effort.
“We’ve been blessed with good health, and I think we have six or seven players that have led us in scoring,” Easterling said. “Whoever is open, that’s who we want shooting the ball. They do a good job finding each other.”
The addition of assistant coaches Kristin Easterling, Hager’s daughter, and Courtney Sparks has also served a positive purpose. Both are former players who were seniors on the 2010 16th Region runner-up team. Hager Easterling said Sparks is Kristin’s best friend “who is like my daughter.
“I tell you, it’s been just what these kids needed, really,” he said. “They’ve been great with them. They’ve got somebody that’s closer to their age that they can relate to. It’s a joy to have both around.”
East Carter ranks among the state leaders in both scoring defense (41.1) and scoring margin (21.2) according to the latest KHSAA statistics.
The 6-foot-1 Stumbo anchors a quick defense that thrives on getting after opponents.
“Kelsey is the eraser,” Easterling said. “I told her she is like our Bill Russell. She cleans up a lot of mistakes when the other girls get beat off the dribble or on backdoor cuts. Several times, Kelsey has made three or four blocks early in a game. Teams really look out for her when they go to the basket after that.”
The Lady Raiders gained some attention around the state in December when they beat Scott County by 20 points in the Capital City Rumble and went 3-1 in Republic Bank Classic at Lexington Catholic. Elizabethtown beat East Carter 53-36.
“We got in a rush and shot 18 percent,” Easterling said. “Even that’s a positive. When you are playing the No. 1 team in the state and shoot that bad, you would think you would get beat (by) 35 or 40 points. I think we had 22 offensive rebounds against them, but just couldn’t make any shots.”
East Carter notched a 65-60 victory over Glasgow in the Ashland Kitten Shootout and most recently won 56-42 at Boyd County.
“We’ve played a good schedule and have a lot of games left against really good teams,” said Easterling, whose team still has two contests ahead against two-time defending 16th Region champion Ashland. “We’ve had a great following. Like I said at Boyd, I never saw people in the upper bleachers there before for a regular season game.”
There’s definitely a buzz around Grayson, he added.
“Just being out in town, I don’t know if there’s been a day where somebody didn’t stop me to say they were proud of the team, and how much they enjoyed watching them play,” Easterling added.
As a result, the Lady Raiders are drawing comparisons to their 2004 team that finished 30-5 and reached the State Tournament’s Elite Eight.
“You’d have to say that’s probably the best team in East Carter girls history because that’s the only one to win a region,” Easterling said. “Eventually, that’s what you’re measured against. We’ll see where this team measures up at the end of the year.”
East Carter hosts Russell on Friday at 7:30 p.m. The Lady Raiders beat the Lady Devils, 63-22, earlier this season.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2671.