Area basketball stars have found a new home court. They don’t have to look very far. A high-level opportunity can be found right in their own backyard.

The Marshall women’s basketball program roster has featured plenty of talent the last five seasons while adding some local flair into the mix. It started with former head coach Matt Daniel and then-assistant Tony Kemper.

Kemper will enter his fourth season as Herd head coach and ninth year on the bench. He admires the dedication of all his athletes, but local players can also have an vested interest in the team’s success.

“We have got a really good nucleus of players that are from right around here,” Kemper said. “Their family can go through their college experience with them. We’ve always felt like when you get a player from close to home, there is some pride attached there. Performing and wanting to win for the home or local school, it can get you over the top sometimes. It definitely has helped us over the years.”

Boyd County girls basketball coach and athletic director Pete Fraley has seen the bountiful benefits that Marshall can bring as both a father and a coach. Daughter Logan was one of the first signees for the Herd from the area. She had a stellar career in the Cam Henderson Center before back issues derailed her senior season. And Savannah Wheeler, the 2019 Kentucky Miss Basketball, flourished in her first season at Marshall.

“I think (Kemper) is trying to build a program that uses as many local kids as possible,” Fraley said. “Instead of letting them get out of town, he tries to lock up some of them. You’re not going to get them all. You have needs and he might not recruit a kid because he already has someone at that position.”

Logan said playing near home was important to her. The environment Kemper has created is inviting and the chance to play Division I basketball 20 minutes from her house was too good to pass up.

“I just really clicked with the coaching staff,“ she said. “At the time, it was Matt Daniel. Coach Kemper was an assistant and both were the lead in my recruiting. I just had a really good relationship with both of them at Marshall. Everybody always talks about their family atmosphere, and that’s 100% true.”

A second chance

Former East Carter guard Kristen Mayo wondered if she made a rushed decision when she was younger. She committed to East Tennessee State at an early age. Mayo thought she would be better suited in a new location in the next phase of her athletic and academic life.

“When I went through the first round of recruiting, Marshall was there,” Mayo said. “It came down to Marshall, ETSU and Morehead. When I went down to East Tennessee, I was super young. I just turned 16. I really got tired of scheduling phone calls with these people because I really don’t know who they were.”

After a coaching change at East Tennessee State renewed a desire to stay in the area, Mayo decommitted and hoped Marshall would come courting again. It didn’t happen at first, but the Herd decided to get back in the picture and the confidence the program showed in Mayo has been a driving force during her career on the Marshall hardwood.

“I had been regretting that ETSU decision since like the fourth day after I did it,” Mayo said. “The people up there were great, but I’m definitely a homebody. I’m from eastern Kentucky and probably will always live in eastern Kentucky. That love grew bigger as I got older. Marshall was one of the last schools that came on board at the time. Coach Daniel wasn’t sure where I was at. He didn’t want to get turned down twice.”

The ensuing conversation took on a more serious tone, but they soon developed a trust factor, according to Mayo. She feels like Marshall has been the perfect spot for her to grow as a player and a person.

“(Daniel) was more to the point,” Mayo said. “Spots start filling up. I completely understand and respect that. He understood where I was coming from, too.”

“I have grown more confident in myself and in my shooting,” she added. “I think during high school people were begging me to shoot the 3. Having coaches there that push you day in and day out, even on days you don’t want to (has helped). There are days where I really just need a break, but having them pushing you has made me get in the gym a little more.”

A resilient region

Kemper’s heightened interest in area players is not just their close proximity. He believes they are not just talented but also share toughness and tenacity.

“That’s a really good region,” Kemper said. “There are really good coaches in that region. The players are good competitors and they like to win. They like to play. That’s really important because when you get to college, you will find that it’s not easy. You have to continue to work on your game, continue to improve.”

Former Lawrence County star Taylor Porter, a first-team All-State selection, and Logan Fraley each played an integral part in Marshall’s turnaround during conference play last year. The Herd earned its first 10-win season since joining Conference USA. Porter had a career-high 30 points on Senior Day in 2019 and splashed a school-record 10 3s.

“You look at Logan Fraley, she had a really successful career here,” Kemper said. “Taylor Porter was great. Kristen Mayo is finishing a really strong career and Savannah, coming off the year she had as a freshman, will keep pushing to continue to get better. That region has produced a lot of success for us and we are still in there recruiting the young ones.”

Kemper believes that local recruits and players have contributed to the amazing culture around the program and the local interest continues to expand.

“I definitely think it matters,” Kemper said. “I’m starting my fourth year as head coach and I think we’ve built a better atmosphere over the years. I think if we continue to improve as a program — Marshall does a great job of supporting athletics in this area — that will continue to grow. That hometown flavor, it certainly helps that. People who watched them in high school will head over to the Henderson Center on a Saturday and watch them play.”

A collaborative comfort

Logan Fraley said having Porter already in Huntington helped her assimilate to college life. Porter was sitting out a year after transferring from Murray State. Opponents on the high-school hardwood also got to share a life experience as teammates.

“I remember playing against her when she was at Lawrence County,” Fraley said. “I knew of her. It just so happened, and I am sure it was by design, that she was my host on my official visit. That comfort level and having someone that I could look up to who I knew already and had a good connection with was so important.”

In Logan Fraley’s first year in 2015-16, Marshall had eight players on its roster from northeastern Kentucky and West Virginia. She also appreciated the academic opportunities that Marshall students have access to. Fraley stayed with the program this season as a graduate assistant and video coordinator. She finished her master’s degree this week.

“Academics were really important to me,” Fraley said. “They had plenty of options to explore once I got there. It seemed like at that time they were trying to build around players from the area. We had eight players come in my freshman year and four of us were local kids. That was kind of intriguing to me. Playing with people that were local and trying to get things done at a high level with local kids was very cool.”

Fraley continued to pay it forward, and when Mayo and Wheeler made their official visit, she was their host. Savannah and her older sister, Taylor, are former teammates of Fraley. She relished her time together with the younger Wheeler at the next level.

“Savannah is like a little sister,” Logan Fraley said. “It was great to help her through the recruiting process and be there if she had questions. I got to be there at her signing day and during her first year at Marshall. It was a neat experience for me and I really enjoyed this year watching her play and grow on the court and in the classroom.”

Mayo plays AAU basketball for the West Virginia Thunder along with many players in the Tri-State Area. She believes establishing any early connection with players contributes to the amazing atmosphere she experiences with her teammates.

“I’ve grown up around Marshall and a lot of people I went to school with would end up at Morehead because it’s in Kentucky and the in-state tuition,” Mayo said. “I like being different. I connected better with that team. I had played with a bunch of those girls. It was super comforting that you knew of them in some way. You’ve already developed a relationship and respect for them.”

A bright future

Kemper can’t officially comment on AAU programs or recruits that have not signed with the program due to NCAA rules, but he can speak to his appreciation for all the local coaches that have played a part in Marshall’s success.

“The AAU coaching around here is very good,” Kemper said. “That program has turned out a lot of good players. The guys in these little gyms all around the towns in this area, they know basketball. They get their kids to work hard. Their improvement skill-wise certainly makes them productive college players. There is credit that goes to the club coaches and the high school coaches around here. At all levels, there are quality people helping these young ladies.”

The Herd’s season was cut short, like all schools around the country, after a comeback win against Southern Miss in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament.

Mayo contributed a career-high 22 points in the overtime thriller. The productive finish will be the perfect catalyst as she heads into her final season in a Marshall uniform.

“It is just fun,” Mayo said. “I wouldn’t have given you that answer a couple of years ago. Transitioning from high school to college, everybody says it’s like a job, and then I got there and realized, yeah, it’s a job. Now, it’s literally a blast, especially where I’m about to have my last run. It’s bizarre because you have spent your whole life preparing to play Division I basketball.

“I have no desire to play after I’m done,” she added. “I’m ready to move on to a career and a family. It makes me realize you need to enjoy every moment. It really has been so much fun, even when I look back during my freshman year and the first couple of weeks thinking, this is crazy. Even those days were a blast. You made friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Wheeler connected on 13 of 14 from the free-throw line in the final contest, including several in the extra session to seal the win. Kemper believes a determined ending can lead to an inspiring beginning next year.

“It was still good for us that we won our last game and in the fashion that we won it,” Kemper said. “It was tough. We were down 11 points with six minutes to go. To get hard-headed and find a way to win that game in overtime was a really good jump-off point. … Three players were really good in that game.  Taylor Pearson, Kristen Mayo and Savannah Wheeler, they are all back next year. That’s exciting for us going forward.”

Families get the chance to enjoy the journey along with the local players. Pete Fraley said the experience was just exciting for the family as it was for his daughter. When the schedules aligned, he and his wife were in attendance.

“We knew all along that Logan wasn’t going to go too far from home,” Fraley said. “She’s kind of a homebody. She would give us a list of four or five schools that she would be interested in, with Marshall being No. 1 on her list when they offered. We sat back and talked about it a little bit and I said, ‘What are you waiting on?’ She said Marshall was No. 1 on my list and I said, ‘Exactly what are we waiting on?’

“Coach Kemper was there at that time. It was just a smooth transition for her to move right along with him.”

Kemper loves the local aspect of his roster, but these are players that he wants to have in his program, regardless of where they call home, he said. Still, he is fully aware that Tri-State players can possess qualities he is looking for. Ironton forward Samantha Lafon recently announced her commitment. Kemper also has offered Rowan County’s Haven Ford, Boyd County’s Audrey Biggs and Russell’s Shaelyn Steele scholarships.

Even at a young age, Kemper is confident these players will keep working hard, stay hungry and add to Marshall’s success.

“We want a complete person,” Kemper said, “who will be where they are supposed to be and work hard in the classroom and on the floor.”

Mayo said she will leave Marshall with a multitude of memories, including the great roommate she had her freshman year, 6-foot-1 Jovana Vucetic.

“People from Grayson don’t meet people from Serbia,” she said.

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