Saying goodbye to Kentucky’s Miss Basketball and another major cog was difficult to be sure, but Boyd County is looking forward to carrying on its high hoops profile.
Accomplished guard Harley Paynter leads a junior-dominated team shooting for its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
Coach Pete Fraley knew the Savannah Wheeler era had to end sometime. She averaged 29.6 points as a senior and became the state’s No. 6 all-time scorer.
“It’s different,” Fraley said of preseason practices. “Savannah was with the program for so long. It was very, very strange the first couple days in the gym. But after that, it’s time to move on. She’s moved on to Marshall and doing great, and we’ve moved on, too. Not to say we don’t miss her, but we’ve learned to play.”
Fraley praised his team’s transition during offseason preparations.
“Kids stepped up and I’m really proud of the way we played all summer,” he said.
Junior wing player Bailey Rucker is one of the players looking to take on a larger role. She’s back to speed after missing seven games with a knee inury as a sophomore — when she averaged 6.2 points and just under four rebounds.
“A bunch of people have told told me I’ve gotta step up a lot this year because it’s going to be hard to fill Savannah’s shoes,” Rucker said. “But we have a whole five and people on the bench that can contribute as well. It’s going to be a team effort.”
Fraley, beginning his 24th season guiding the program, said all 11 players on the roster have something to prove. Boyd County also graduated key defender/rebounder Graci Borders.
“We love Savannah and Graci, but we want to prove that, hey, it wasn’t just Savannah and Graci, that we had good complimentary pieces,” Fraley said. “We’re looking forward to this year.”
The bar is set high. Boyd County averaged 28 wins during its run of three 16th Region championships.
“Obviously, we have the target on our back because we’ve won for so many years,” Paynter said. “But I like it because it challenges us and makes us want to push harder in practice and make each other better. Especially this year, because without Savannah we know we’re not going to have her to score, and we’re going to have to step up and all of us are going to have to do more.”
Paynter is poised to play a lead role. One of the state’s jop juniors, she hit 71 three-pointers and averaged 16 points as a sophomore but her value showed up just as much in other areas. Paynter’s quickness and anticipation helped trigger the Lady Lions’ fullcourt defense and she led the Lady Lions in rebounding with 7.1 per game.
“Harley’s just a kid with a nose for the ball,” Fraley said. “She’s definitely not the biggest player out there. She has that ability to read the ball out of shooters’ hands and knows where to be.”
While Paynter can fill up a stat sheet, Fraley said she also does the intangible things well like moving without the ball.
Paynter recently made her college plans knowny by committing to Morehead State University.
“I had been praying about it since the beginning of my recruiting process,” she said. “I loved it on my visit. I’m super excited.”
Joining Paynter and Rucker as returning starters for Boyd County is junior Emma Borders, a tough defender and rebounder with a nice 3-point touch. She made 38 of them last season.
“I look for her have a really big year,” Fraley said. “Emma shoots the ball well and can put it on the floor. She’s really good about getting a rebound and starting our fast break.”
Naturally, Borders is adjusting to no longer sharing the court with her big sister, now attending Morehead State University.
“i’ll always miss having her around,” Emma said. “Graci always pushed me so hard to play as hard as I can. She always brought so much energy to practice.”
The younger Borders recalled how Graci would arrive at practice, “plug up her phone to the speaker and turn it all the way up to get everybody ready to be there, even when we’re not. She did all the stuff that a lot of people really don’t do, like she got all the loose balls, all the rebounds. That’s all she cared about. She didn’t care about scoring the most points, she left that up to Savannah.
“It’s really different,” Emma added. “Not just basketball but everything.”
The Borders dynamic is a little different for Fraley, too.
“I didn’t have to coach Emma last year because if she did someting wrong Graci told her about it,” the coach said. “The other intangible with Graci, she was always taking charges. We’re looking for her sister to step in there and kind of fill that void for us, too.”
Another Graci — Opell — is projected to start in the backcourt. The team’s lone senior has the reputation for being a pesky defender. Also, she connected on 32 triples last season while averaging 5.1 points.
“Graci’s deceptively quick,” Fraley said. “She had some huge minutes last year when Bailey got hurt down at the Lexington Catholic tournament against Ryle. Graci hit four 3s in the third quarter when we were kind of struggling a little bit, and got us over the hump.”
Expectations are sky-high for Audrey Biggs, a 5-foot-10 eighth-grader with excellent shooting range. She demonstrated that in her first practice after the volleyball season.
“I think her first move was a behind-the-back, step-back 3 and it went in,” Fraley said. “Audrey’s a fun-loving free spirit. Nothing bothers her. Last year in the region final right before the half, she steps back and hits two 24-foot 3s. That’s huge for a seventh-grader. And she’s like, that’s what I do.”
Leandra Curnutte, also an eighth-grader, will help out at point guard and has been “shooting the lights out” according to her coach. Junior Isabella Caldwell impressed Fraley with her sharpshooting since coming over from the soccer field.
Adding to the mix are junior post player Brea Woods, sophomore Kailey Ward, exchange student Elin Larsson (Stockholm, Sweden) and freshman Jenna Stewart.
“I think Brea has improved so much,” Paynter said. “She puts her hands up and blocks us all the time.”
As usual, Fraley has lined up a loaded schedule for the Lady Lions, including a return trip to Lexington Catholic’s Traditional Bank Holiday Classic. Boyd County will keep to its tradition of firing 3s and pressuring opponents.
“As always, we’re going to get out and run and there’s not a bad shot,” Fraley said.