Unfinished business awaits top contenders for the title
Mercy Academy last season was on the wrong side of a historically lopsided girls’ basketball championship game, but taking one on the chin might just pay off.
The Jaguars — who fell to two-time defending champion Mercer County, 74-34, in the finals in March — were ranked first in the Herald-Leader’s preseason survey of girls’ basketball coaches. Ta’Ziah Jenks, a preseason top-five player who averaged 16 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore, will look to lead Mercy’s defense of the 6th Region title; the Jaguars have not repeated as a region champ since 1992, when they won their first state title as a member of the 7th Region.
Clark County, the two-time defending 10th Region champ, was the second-leading votegetter. The Cardinals reached the Sweet Sixteen semifinals last season, also falling to Mercer County, and return four of their five starters from last year’s state tournament.
Ryle, the reigning 9th Region titlist, was ranked third by the coaches. Sacred Heart and Scott County rounded out the top five at fourth and fifth, respectively.
TOP 25 TEAMS (Last season’s record in parentheses)
1. Mercy (25-10): Four of the Jaguars’ top four scorers return this season, among them Sydney Rivette, who along with fellow senior Jalyn Shorter will be recovering from ACL surgery until January. Jenks has reported offers from several colleges, including WKU, Marshall and Xavier.
2. Clark County (28-8): Senior Hayley Harrison and junior Kennedy Igo were both ranked in the preseason top 10 by the coaches, making Clark County one of two programs with that distinction this season. The Cardinals are hunting for their first state title, and the second ever by a 10th Region champion; Nicholas County’s in 1993 is so far the only one.
3. Ryle (29-7): The Raiders are the other program that can wave the “two top-10 players” flag, thanks to Lauren Schwartz (a senior committed to Rice University) and junior Maddie Scherr, a top-25 national recruit and a favorite to win Miss Basketball in 2020.
4. Sacred Heart (29-6): Mercer County was the only in-state team to hand the Valkyries a loss last season — and Heart was the only one to get the Titans, later — before Manual spoiled their bid for a state title in the finals of the 7th Region Tournament. Sacred Heart lost nine seniors, including now-Indiana-freshman Grace Berger, but is a program that can always be counted on to be in the mix.
5. Scott County
(31-3): The Cardinals won 21 straight games before Manual held their state-best offense (78.2 ppg) to only 45 points in a first-round defeat at state. Leading scorer Peyton Riddle graduated but a stout quartet led by Miss Basketball challenger Maaliya Owens (15.6 ppg, 5.7 rebounds as a junior) should ease the pain.
6. Lincoln County (24-7): With Mercer County expected to take a step back in the 12th Region, most think it’s the Patriots’ turn to take the reins. They gave the Titans all they wanted in a 67-64 semifinals loss in last year’s region tournament and played several top-10 teams close throughout last season. They also have Miss Basketball favorite Emma King, a University of Kentucky commit.
7. Elizabethtown (34-3): Clark County ended an impressive season by the Panthers, who handed Mercy its biggest defeat last season prior to the state finals (80-49 at Mercy). Whitney Hay, a junior who’s been offered by several mid-major programs, is E-town’s only immediate returning starter but the Panthers hope to see Leikyn Walker (12 points, five rebounds as a junior) return from ACL surgery late in the season.
8. Boyd County (29-5): Miss Basketball contender Savannah Wheeler — a Marshall commit who led the state in three-point makes last season and is this year’s only returning first-team All-State selection — grabs the headlines but sophomore Harley Paynter is a budding star as well; she averaged 14.7 points as a freshman, has an offer from WKU and has taken an unofficial visit to UK.
9. Owensboro Catholic (27-8): The Aces have won four of the eight 3rd Region championship games played this decade but haven’t repeated as the region champ since going back-to-back in 1985 and 1986. Tennessee Tech commit Mackenzie Keelin, who led Owensboro Catholic with 13.5 ppg last season, will lead an experienced group looking to end that streak.
10. Butler (24-5): A good bet? Either Mercy or Butler is winning the 6th Region this year, as one of the two has won the region title each year since 2010 (the Bearettes have the edge, 6-3). Jasmine Elder, a 5-foot-9 senior who’s committed to Indiana State, averaged 13.1 ppg last season and 5-8 senior Jaida Wiggins was right behind her at 11.1 ppg.
Coaches’ next 15: 11. Male (23-9); 12. Mercer County (36-3); 13. South Laurel (26-6); 14.
Manual (22-9); 15. Anderson County (27-6);
16. Campbell County (29-4); 17. Casey County (26-7); 18. Murray (32-3); 19. Simon Kenton (2011); 20. Eastern (20-8); 21. Johnson Central (20-13); 22. Christian Academy of Louisville (11-16); 23. Conner (23-9); 24. Paul Laurence Dunbar (22-10); 25. Assumption (11-20).
TOP 25 PLAYERS
1. Emma King, Lincoln County (Sr., 5-11, 20.6): Mercer County’s Seygan Robins was a lock to win Miss Basketball entering last season. Could this year’s leading vote-getter keep the crown in the 12th Region? King, a 5-foot-11 standout who’s committed to the University of Kentucky, led the Patriots to the 12th Region semifinals, where they fell to Robins’ Titans last season.
2. Maddie Scherr, Ryle (Jr., 5-11, 16.2): She has more than a dozen reported scholarship offers, among them UK, Louisville, Georgia, Oregon and Florida. Scherr, ranked 25th nationally in her class by ESPN, shot 48.7 percent from the floor last year for the Raiders, who reached the quarterfinals of the
3. Savannah Wheeler, Boyd County (Sr., 5-7, 24.7): Might she be the biggest threat to King in this season’s Miss Basketball race? The Marshall commit led the state with 108 made three-pointers last season and was ninth in scoring. She led Boyd County to the Sweet Sixteen semifinals, and the Lions are favored to make a third straight trip to state on her watch.
4. Shelby Calhoun, Christian Academy of Louisville (Jr., 5-11, 20.5): Another nationally-ranked class of 2020 prospect — she’s 29th overall in ESPN’s rankings — might not be as widely known among fans due to the Centurions’ lack of team success; they went 11-16 last season against a brutal schedule in the 7th Region. College coaches have noticed, though:
UK, Indiana, Tennessee, Duke and Ohio State are among the dozens of schools after her.
5. Ta’Ziah Jenks, Mercy Academy (Jr., 6-0, 16.0): She increased her offensive output to 22 points a night over Mercy’s run in the state tournament, which ended at the hands of Mercer County in the finals. If you ignore her nine-point effort from that 74-34 loss, that Sweet Sixteen average would’ve ended as an eye-popping 27 points per game.
6. Hayley Harrison, Clark County (Sr., 5-10, 12.0): Clark County brings back a wealth of experience from a team that reached the Sweet Sixteen semifinals, falling to the eventual champs. Harrison, who committed to TennesseeMartin during last year’s regular season, leads a trio of seniors that also includes future college
7. Maaliya Owens, Scott County (Sr., 5-9, 15.6): It’s reasonable to expect Owens’ scoring and rebounding (5.7) to swell after the departure of leading scorer Peyton Riddle, who led the team in both categories last season. She has committed to Tennessee Tech.
8. Kennedy Igo,
Clark County (Jr., 5-7, 11.5): Igo made 40.1 percent of her threepoint attempts last season for the Cardinals, who ranked third statewide as a team at 37.7 percent. She will start at point guard for the third consecutive season.
9. Cameron Browning, Male (Sr., 6-1, 14.8): The Belmont commit was among the state leaders in shooting with a 57.7-percent clip from the field and was in range of averaging a double-double at 8.5 rebounds a night.
10. Lauren Schwartz, Ryle (Sr., 5-11, 17.6):
Her junior teammate is more nationally known but it was Schwartz who led Ryle in scoring and rebounding (7.6) last season. The duo will try to win the 9th Region one more time before Schwartz, a Rice University commit takes off to Texas.
Coach’s next 15: 11. Nila Blackford, Manual (Sr., 6-1, 13.1); 12. Whitney Hay, Elizabethtown (Jr., 6-0, 19.2); 13. Jada Higgins, Knott County Central (Sr., 5-9, 14.5); 14. Ally Collett, South Laurel (Jr., 5-6, 19.6); 15. Cassidy Rowe, Shelby Valley (Fr., 5-5, 9.9); 16. Ivy Turner, Danville (Sr., 5-6, 24.1); 17. Erin Toller, Sacred Heart (Jr., 5-6, 10.3); 18. Kendall Wingler, Meade County (Jr., 5-10, 25.4); 19. Aaliyah Hampton, Christian County (Sr., 5-7, 13.9); 20. Jasmine Elder, Butler (Sr., 5-9, 13.1); 21. Destyne Jackson, Frederick Douglass (Sr., 5-8, 26.0); 22. Mikayla Kinnard, Eastern (Sr., 6-0, 13.9); 23. Mackenzie Keelin, Owensboro Catholic (Sr., 6-0, 13.5); 24. Ashlee Harris, Sacred Heart (Sr., 5-6, 6.5); 25. Emma Hacker, Menifee County (Sr., 6-2, 21.7).
FOUR OF THE MERCY JAGUARS’ TOP FOUR SCORERS RETURN THIS SEASON.