By MATTHEW SPARKS
The Daily Independent
RUSSELL Life inside the lines hasn’t changed much in the last 21 years for Mandy Layne.
She has made the successful transition from player to coach, but the same competitiveness and emotion Layne has displayed over the last two decades on the basketball court has never wavered.
It has guided Russell the last 392 days as the Lady Devils regained their Rupp Arena reality.
The Russell coach — known as Mandy Sterling when she played for state champion West Carter in 2000 — has competed on the biggest stages and knows what awaits her team when it takes the floor tonight at the state tournament against Dixie Heights.
“It is really important to us having coach Layne,” Russell senior Kaeli Ross said. “She knows what will go on there. She knows what to expect and she puts that on us in practice. She tells us what she expects from the team and the atmosphere.”
“You would think she’s not competitive at all,” she added about her coach, “but in the middle of games, you will hear her screaming and then you will know that she is a competitor. She doesn’t show it very much, but once she gets into the game and the mojo starts, you know it’s about to get really competitive.”
The Lady Devils repeated as region champions after defeating Boyd County in Morehead on March 27. No one was more exuberant in the final moments than Layne.
Senior forward Aubrey Hill said her coach can sense when the team needs a push and when the moment calls for a more relaxed tone.
“She always knows what we need to be focusing on,” Hill said. “She wants us to know what we need to do as a team. She stays pretty calm, too.
“There is no need to get overwhelmed and if we play our game in the way that we are supposed to play, we should be just fine.”
Layne doesn’t see much difference between Mandy Sterling the player and Mandy Layne the coach.
“I really hate to lose,” Layne said. “I still get really upset over losses. I spend a lot of time and I ask the girls to look at teams and look at what we could have done differently. We try to make changes and adjustments, then implement them in practice to get us prepared the next time we face that team.”
Layne has guided the Lady Devils to three region titles during her tenure and amassed 143 wins in the last six seasons.
The coach’s passion for the game and her desire to win is something that Ross and her teammates experience every time they take the floor.
“It makes us want to play harder,” Ross said. “It honestly does. To see how bad she wants it, that makes us want it that much more. We see how hard she has worked for all of us and how much dedication that she has put into this team. It makes us want to play for her and for ourselves, too.”
Toughness and a defensive mindset have become the staples of the Lady Devils program. They have aided the players to handle the adversity of tense, late-game moments or battling a stretch that saw four starters miss games due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It just shows how strong the program is with the challenges it faces,” Ross said. “Some of us were in quarantine for a bit and some of the players that never started on the varsity level had to step up and take on new roles. It shows this program will get better. Every year, it’s the continuation of how hard we want it.”
Russell only played four games in January. Hill was the lone starter left during a three-game segment of the schedule and the way her inexperienced teammates played in those contests left an impression on her. It inspired the rest of the team to rise to another level after they returned.
The Lady Devils have won 14 of their last 15 games.
“It’s been a huge part of how we played this year,” Hill said of the performance of the younger players. “We had COVID-19 issues. We had JV players that had to step in. I think it really built their confidence. We have a really deep bench now. They really helped us win most of our games.”
Hill has continued her transformation this season. Her coach constantly reminds the senior of her abilities and the presence she has on the court.
“It’s helped a lot,” Hill said. “I’m still pretty shy, I guess, when I play. Coach tells me I have nothing to worry about: ‘Who’s going to be able to guard you? You’re over 6 feet tall and really fast.’ … I don’t need to be as scared as I usually am.”
Layne doesn’t want to separate the former Lady Comet from the coach either. The same attention to detail that helped her prepare as a player has now propelled the current group of Lady Devils to reach new heights.
Layne is in her 12th season as Russell coach. She said the team has bought into her style of play and what it takes to perform at that level.
“I take game preparation very seriously at this point,” Layne said. “Our girls have really fed off of that. They get really interested in the game plan. They want to know where they’re supposed to be and what defense we are playing or what offense would be best. it’s an important part of our game prep.”
“They are always playing so hard and outplaying the opponent,” she continued. “They are focusing on the details and all the little things. They have exceeded my expectations.”
Russell expected to be back at Rupp Arena for the Sweet Sixteen after advancing to the state tournament last year. The Lady Devils were on the premises, but the event was canceled just hours before they would play on Cawood’s Court.
Russell meets Dixie Heights (27-2) tonight at 8 p.m. in Lexington.
Layne doesn’t recall the same anxious moments playing in the state tournament at McBrayer Arena in 2000 as she does now patrolling the sideline.
“As a player, when we went to the state tournament in 2000, I guess we should have been nervous,” Layne said. “I just felt like we were going to do it. As a coach, you always think about the what-ifs that you don’t think about when you’re a kid playing. It’s definitely more nerve-wracking.”
The expectations continue to grow for the Lady Devils. Russell sees itself as ready to win its first Sweet Sixteen game since 1976.
“It gives us a great opportunity, but we have to make sure that we are well-prepared,” Layne said, “I continue to watch film to make sure that I didn’t forget anything. We are covering every single base that we can possibly cover and whatever we need for the game, we will be ready for it.”
Whatever the future holds for the program, it has forged a solid foundation for continued success.
“It feels like we have gotten way stronger,” Hill said. “We have some good and talented girls in our group. It shows us that we are actually a force to be reckoned with now.”
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