Fleming County has, so far, defended its spot as the 16th Region’s top team effectively all season, sporting an 11-0 record against region foes.
That was without even being at full strength, which the Panthers have become — or at least close to it — with the impending return of senior point guard Darion Burns.
Burns, last season’s 16th Region Tournament MVP, was cleared Monday to return from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament sustained on June 28.
The Panthers play at Boyd County tonight. Fleming County coach Mark Starns didn’t rule out using Burns in that game, but expects for certain to use him Monday at archrival Rowan County.
“It feels good,” Burns said after practice Wednesday. “I’m getting stronger still. Still gotta work on some things, keep building it up and make it 100 (percent), but my therapist told me when I took the test it’s about 88 percent healthy, so it’s getting there.”
Starns added that Burns was doing extra work to rebuild his cardiovascular fitness.
Fleming County (14-6) is tied for the second-best winning percentage in the region.
“I thought our guys learned to win without him and became probably a better team, and I hope we’re an even better team when he comes on the floor,” Starns said. “Enthusiasm was tremendous today in every drill, every segment, every part of practice. Everybody was getting after it. (With) his presence on the floor and his defensive prowess, everybody else’s confidence picks up.”
Without Burns, Troy Steward has continued the emergence he began last season, scoring 20.3 points per game. Three other Panthers are also averaging in double figures: Austin Crisp, Brady Saunders and Wilder Williams, whose presence down low led Starns to suggest he could become one of the region’s top players next season.
Burns tallied 17.4 points and 5.7 rebounds a night last season as the Panthers won their first 61st District and 16th Region titles. He made the Kentucky Junior All-Star team.
Adding a player of that caliber to a team already among the region’s best only makes life tougher for other contenders.
“How many teams can (contend), if you take, OK, ‘who’s your best player?’ and take him out of the equation?” Ashland coach Buddy Biggs asked rhetorically. “They’ve done a great job just to be what they are, and I think whether (Burns) comes back or not they’re in the conversation, but he certainly changes that conversation if he’s anywhere near healthy, in a positive way.”
Vikings coach Shawn Thacker has seen his own son, Tyler Thacker, return from an ACL injury sustained in last year’s region final.
“We’ll find out how (Burns returning) changes them, and that will change how we do our thing,” Shawn Thacker said. “You also have to think about, when you’re building your puzzle, how does that react to the other teams that you’re gonna have to compete with, possibly, for a district or regional title?”
Burns has had an offer to play collegiately from Pikeville. He said Evansville has also continued to show interest.
Starns said for Fleming County to feel comfortable entering postseason play, Burns has merely to “be himself, and no other description except that.”
“He doesn’t need to be afraid of anything happening to him, because the leg that he’s rehabbed, that’s his strongest leg now,” Starns said. “He just needs to come in and be Darion Burns, and I feel if he comes in and will be himself, we’ll be all right.”
Added Burns: “There’s a lot of good teams in (the region) and we’ve just gotta come out and play hard and make a statement, so we can make it back to Rupp again.”
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.