Shaelyn Steele was caught off guard.
A budding basketball star, Steele drew her first Division I offer from Marshall as a seventh-grader.
Steele was grateful for what it represented, but as more college interest percolated, she light-heartedly remembers thinking, “These people don’t know me; why are they calling me?”
Steele has gotten better acclimated to the attention and everything that goes with the recruiting process, she said. Good thing — as long as she continues to pilot a breakneck Russell offensive attack while averaging in double figures herself, which she did as an eighth-grader and again last season as a freshman, it isn’t likely to go away.
Simultaneously, Russell’s program has found greater attention, in the form of top billing in coaches’ voting in preseason polls conducted by both The Cats’ Pause and The Daily Independent.
Back-to-back 16th Region Tournament titles and a win at Rupp Arena last season have fostered the respect the Red Devils have craved. So does the return of a trio of starting guards that showed up big in big moments as underclassmen last season.
Steele has stirred Russell’s proverbial drink since she began running the Red Devils’ offense regularly in 2018-19 while averaging 7.1 points per game as a seventh-grader. That number more than doubled to 16.4 points per night along with 5.0 rebounds in eighth grade — more than holding her own against high school competition even as she had yet to set foot in one herself as a student.
Steele’s points per game dipped a tad to 13.7 last season, but that was in part due to the addition of a new Red Devil.
Jenna Adkins transferred in from Ashland and averaged 8.0 points per game in her first season in her new shade of maroon.
“It was very exciting being part of a team that’s very well-accomplished in past seasons, and I just wanted to be a part of it and help them get back to where they wanted to be,” Adkins said. “And I wanted to get there as well.”
Adkins backed that up by scoring in double figures in five of Russell’s seven postseason games last year.
Bella Quinn’s raw statistical line wasn’t as robust, but she showed a taste for hitting big shots in big moments.
Quinn drained a 3-pointer late to kill a Rowan County rally in a March 8 victory over the Vikings. And Quinn helped Russell find some separation from Menifee County in the 16th Region Tournament quarterfinals, dropping in two treys to spur the run that helped the Red Devils pull away.
“Someone had to hit the shots,” Quinn said, “and when it came to important parts of the game, I just knew I had to hit it. When we couldn’t get it inside or Shaelyn had trouble driving, I just needed to be there to make the shots.”
The trio of underclassman guards played pivotal roles in a breakout season that included Russell’s first victory in the Sweet Sixteen since 1976, a 58-44 victory over Dixie Heights. The Red Devils also extended their stretch of 20-win campaigns to six — the longest active streak in the 16th Region.
And all that with Russell scheduled to get three more years of both Steele and Quinn, and two more of Adkins.
Red Devils coach Mandy Layne knows better than to openly talk about the potential for a region five-peat — “I’m not thinking that; I just think year-to-year,” she said — but Layne does anticipate Russell will handle the target of on-paper repeat region favorite well.
“Once you’ve had success, I think it does help you,” Layne said, “because then you know what it takes to get there. I still think we’ll have some adversity this year and it will be a process, and hopefully like other years, we’re gonna overcome it and be there at the end.”
To get there, Steele, Adkins and Quinn are all aware they will need to pick up the leadership mantle as well as production this season. Russell plans to use its somewhat small stature and its speed to its advantage, cranking up an already potent system of defensive pressure.
“This year, we’re a lot smaller, so our defense is gonna have to really create our offense for us,” Steele said. “Our main focus is our defense.”
And, well, winning.
“I feel like it just drives us to work even harder and not let anyone knock us off our pedestal,” Adkins said of the outlook, “and just keeps us driving to go even further.”