In not that long — less than 40 days — we’ll be turning our full attention to basketball.

And with that attention, a large share of it will belong to Elliott County in the 16th Region.

The Lions are an overwhelming favorite in going for a regional three-peat, something that has been rarely attained in the region in the past 30 years.

Aside from Ashland winning the regional title five times in a row from 1976 to 1980 — four of those years coming when Paul Patterson went undefeated against regional competition in a simply incredible feat — it’s been hard to put together back-to-back-to-back championships.

Rowan County did it in surprising fashion from 1987 to 1989, upsetting favored Boyd County one year and a very good Russell team in 1988. Those Tim Moore-coached and Kelly Wells-led Viking teams were outstanding, but not many expected or would have predicted three regional titles in a row.

The only other time it happened since 1980 was with Boyd County from 1998 to 2000 with some Tyler Zornes-led teams. Those actually came on the heels of the Frank Lee era and included the ‘99 game when Zornes beat the Tomcats with the last second 3-pointer.

Of course, Ashland and Boyd County dominated the 1990s, winning a combined 11 times from 1990 to 2002. From 2003 to 2007, there was a different regional champion until Elliott County repeated in 2008.

Which brings us up to speed.

Years from now, there will be tales of Elliott County’s Fab Five — high-scoring Jonathan Ferguson, twins Ethan and Evan Faulkner,

6-7 Timmy Knipp and unsung Chris Knipp — and how they dominated the region for three years in a row.

It is a good story, especially when considering the size of Elliott County. It’s also good fodder for those who fight the good fight against those who would like the class system to come to Kentucky high school basketball.

Elliott County is a small school with giant appeal. Anybody who has seen them play knows how much fun they are to watch. Even opponents have great respect for their zest and passion for basketball.

There aren’t many days that pass (any?) that these kids aren’t in the gym honing their skills. They’re self-made players, play together superbly and play basketball like you used to see it played and how you like to see it played.

They have four players who can get to the Division I level, despite being a little undersized. Evan Faulkner, a top-flight defender, recently made a verbal commitment to Radford University.

Rob VanHoose coached three of them — the Faulkners and Ferguson — this summer in AAU with the Derek Smith All-Stars program. They traveled the country, including trips to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Akron, Pittsburgh and Morgantown.

VanHoose fell in love with their zest for basketball.

“They don’t ever take a possession off,” he said. “They play hard. I attribute that to their coach at Elliott County. Rick Mays helped instill that in them. It’s a natural desire.”

The Derek Smith All-Stars forged a 39-14 summer record. Included in their resume was winning the bronze division in Morgantown, the silver division in the adidas May Classic in Bloomington, the YBOA and BCI Kentucky championships and runnerup in the AAU state championship.

“They’ve got the intangibles,” VanHoose said of the Elliott County trio. “When their shots are falling, they can beat anybody.”

This winter they’re going to the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they will be an instant hit.

“I might burn a path to Myrtle Beach myself,” VanHoose said. “I watch them play when I can. It’s a long drive (to Sandy Hook) but it’s worth the drive. Nobody has ever gone out of Elliott County asking for a refund. They sell tickets. People want to see them play. It’s not quite the frenzy of O.J. (Mayo) because you knew you’d see him in the pros.”

There’s much more of a “like” and respect for Elliott County than there ever was for Rose Hill during the Mayo days, although many piled on the Royal bandwagon.

VanHoose, who coached at Rose Hill some during the time Mayo was there, has enjoyed spending time with the Faulkners and Ferguson, who will be one of the state’s premier shooters this winter.

The Faulkners are regarded by many as coaches on the floor. VanHoose said that’s a perfect description.

“They’re great kids who would like to go into coaching themselves,” he said. “Most players sit there and listen and don’t have anything to say. They’ve always got plenty of suggestions and usually they’re right. O.J. used to do that.”

Ethan Faulkner had six game-winning baskets on the summer AAU tour. The team came from behind many times, including from 16 behind against a powerhouse Canadian team in Las Vegas. With four seconds to go, the Kentucky team forced a turnover. Ethan drove the length of the floor and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win 78-75.

“We won the pool, they won the tournament,” VanHoose said. “(Rick) Pitino was watching and he asked how did a team from Kentucky beat the best team from Canada? All I can tell you is you win with them.”

The region would have been extremely interesting if everybody had stayed in place.

But Rose Hill is reshaped after losing Dakotah Euton and Chad Jackson to Scott County and Fairview changed after losing Cameron Hall to Glasgow, where his father Jeff Hall is the new head coach.

Without question, East Carter is the top challenger to Elliott County’s crown. The Raiders should have their best team in several years behind 6-6 standout Colt Barnhill and other experienced players for coach Brandon Baker.

But this season may well be a coronation for Elliott County’s string of success, the finishing touch on an unequaled three-year run in Sandy Hook that will make them a darling of region history.

Either that or it will be remembered for one of the biggest upsets in region history.

It all starts in less than 40 days. Let the countdown begin.

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.

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