Embracing player by player in celebration of being crowned the new kings of the 16th Region, the wetness of the coach's eyes expressed relief, renewal and a rejoicing.
“The Lord blessed me with a great team,” said Fleming County first-year coach Mark Starns.
Just more than 10 months ago, Starns was dismissed from Henderson County despite 99 wins in five seasons.
A reported hazing incident, in which Starns was not directly involved, was rumored to have prompted the dismissal. However, according to reports, school officials said that incident had nothing to do with his firing.
In any case, Starns felt “vindicated” after his Panthers beat two-time region champion Rowan County on Friday night for the title.
The accomplishment bolsters his already-impressive resume.
Starns and his talented bunch are heading to Rupp Arena, not exactly uncharted territory for the son of former longtime Lexington Catholic coach Tommy Starns.
Included in Mark Starns' background:
‰Served as video coordinator and scout for the Boston Celtics under coach Rick Pitino in 1997; and later became interim assistant coach under coach Jim O'Brien in 2000.
‰Assisted coach Kelly Wells in leading Mason County to three straight Sweet 16 appearances, including a state championship in 2003.
‰Guided Johnson Central to the state tournament in 2006.
Hey, maybe Starns could face his former team by this weekend … then again, let’s not look ahead too far. Johnson Central, the 15th Region champion, has perhaps an even tougher opening-round draw than the Panthers.
So, let’s take a look at their opponents, which are both ranked in the Associated Press' top six in Kentucky.
‰Fleming County (28-6) takes on Fifth Region champion John Hardin (28-3) on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. Riding a 20-game win streak, John Hardin (AP No. 6) hasn’t lost since the calendar turned to 2013.
‰Johnson Central (22-10) hopes to pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent state tournament memory when it goes up against No. 3 Louisville Ballard (28-4) on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
‰The Golden Eagles are making a return trip to Rupp. They competed closely with, ironically, John Hardin a year ago. They lost by 13 points after taking a knotted-up affair into the fourth quarter of the first-round contest. Daveon Greene and Brandon Price — both still on the team — were the difference for the Bulldogs.
‰Ballard is hot, too. Behind Louisville commit Quentin Snider, the Bruins have won 15 in a row.
‰Rowan County junior Tyler Thacker, who exited with a severe knee injury in the second quarter of the region championship game, will undergo an MRI early this week. According to coach and father Shawn Thacker, it appears to be a torn ACL, but he is not yet sure about the two-sport athlete — Tyler also plays baseball.
‰Lewis County’s girls shocked you, didn't they? Well, those who know them best may have not been too taken aback, and that includes even East Carter. The Lady Lions showed flashes of a contending team this year. Those flashes turned into a full-on power surge during Saturday's girls region tournament opening round. By knocking off East Carter for a second straight season, coach Jay Fite’s group can now play like they have nothing to lose. And that can be dangerous.
‰Sydney Cullop continued to be one of Ashland’s most valuable players in an ugly, 18-point defeat of Rowan County. Cullop's offense (14 points) was just an added bonus to go with everything else the senior brings. The Kittens will continue to depend on Cullop to complement the other standouts in tonight's semifinal matchup with Lewis County.
‰If Logan Fraley, Taylor Wheeler and Emily Stewart continue to excel at their current level for Boyd County, it will only take a little extra from everybody else to give the Lady Lions a great chance to get to Bowling Green for the second time in three seasons. The trio combined for 43 points in Saturday’s win over Fleming County.
‰Russell will need to play at its best — think of the 64-36 win over Greenup County, or the 59-53 defeat of Lewis County in the 63rd District final — to stun Boyd County in the semifinal round tonight. Guards Lexi Berry and Shelby Huddleston are capable of handling pressure, and applying some of their own, but this will be a lofty task.
‰Regarding tonight’s games, the Point Guard will stick with his original prediction, which pits Ashland and Boyd County in Tuesday’s final for the third straight season.
Former teammates locked into a classic individual battle during 16th Region Tournament action last Wednesday.
Kyle Skaggs and Austin Hunt, who shared the scoring load for Russell two seasons ago, went berserk with 33 and 34 points, for their respective teams in the Red Devils’ first region tourney win in six years.
In his final and only year at Boyd County, Hunt left his mark as a Lion. The 6-foot-3 guard/forward is heading to Lincoln Memorial University in the fall.
“Senator” Skaggs polished off his six-year term with 2,721 career points, the most in Russell’s illustrious history. The 6-2 guard said after the team's heartbreaking semifinal loss to Rowan County that college basketball is likely not in his future. He could potentially earn a full-ride academic scholarship to a school.
Also joining the club this past week was Darion Burns, Fleming County's explosive junior point guard. Burns dropped 30 against Ashland, with 16 coming in the two overtimes.
More on Skaggs
Skaggs was named Player of the Year in the 16th Region by the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches.
He is set to play in the KABC East-West All-Star game on Saturday at Transylvania University.
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AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.