Changing of the guard: Lions overcome injuries, illness to make resilient run to finals

Apr. 4—CANNONSBURG — It was only three games.

Boyd County wanted three more nights without another setback. It wasn't a lot to ask.

In the opening round of the 16th Region Tournament on March 5, the Lions forced a Morgan County turnover in the opening quarter. Jada Ray wanted to cash in the extra possession and drove the ball to the basket. She lost her balance on the shot attempt and injured her wrist trying to brace herself.

It was another blow to an already shorthanded backcourt. Boyd County had to regroup one more time.

Lions coach Pete Fraley didn't end his coaching career with a seventh region crown but still had plenty of reasons to celebrate his team after their inspiring show of resiliency.

"It just seemed like something was hitting us every other week," Fraley said. "Sophie Stevens, McKenzie Moore, Jada Ray, Baylee Stephens all stepped up and took on a bigger role in the team concept. We asked them to do more. We just had the next-man-up mentality. We had to change things around and change things on the fly. I would have loved to play the region tournament with a full squad. It just wasn't meant to be for us this year. The kids that were hurt, they were still there."

"Taylor Bartrum never missed a practice or a game," he added. "She's right there on the bench every time cheering them on and coaching them up. She was a great influence on Jada Ray who really blossomed this year. My seniors had different roles and were leaders. ... Gracie Gilbert, the kid didn't play a lot most of the year, but came in against Fleming County. Jasmine (Jordan) made the steal (and winning basket) but it was Gracie who harassed the Fleming guard to make that pass."

Seniors Audrey Biggs and Jasmine Jordan accepted the team's new reality and embraced their expanded role over the last two months.

Bartrum tore her ACL at Ashland, the first game after Boyd County won the Kentucky 2A state tournament in Owensboro, on Jan. 18.

Bella Opell, the team's defensive stopper, battled illness over the final month of the season and had to end her season early.

After Ray fell to the Johnson Arena floor, the Lions' fierce frontcourt players had to bring the team together.

"This year, we're definitely played for each other," Biggs said. "When a girl goes down, you really hate to see that but they were always there supporting us at every single game and practice. We were there for them any time they needed us. They needed to get better outside of basketball with doctor and therapy visits. We got better with their support and when they were cheering us on."

Jordan knows the toughness of her teammates. She never wants to see them hurt but their inspiration guided the players on the floor over the during the closing stretch this year.

"I didn't want Taylor to get hurt but it was very inspiring," Jordan said. "I went to see Taylor right after her surgery. It was really motivating for me. You saw that she was doing everything she could to get back on the court. She was pushing herself to get back and prepare for the volleyball season (at Marshall). It pushed me. I just wanted to buckle down and play for my team and teammates."

Biggs took over the ballhandling duties due to the team's lack of experienced point guards. She accepted the responsibility along with the growing pains. The ball didn't always bounce her way during the transition.

But when the lights were brightest, Biggs turned in her best game of the season after helping the Lions to their eighth straight region final and 15th during Fraley's tenure.

"I'm going to go to college and play at Pitt next year," Biggs said. "I'm going to be a guard but you know being a guard as opposed to a point guard are two different things. I was super uncomfortable at first because I was thrown out there. I did what I had to do. I got more comfortable but it felt like it wasn't until the region championship that I finally started to get things together. We had never done it before until this year. It was a new experience for every single one of us. We were out of our normal positions."

Defenses always focused on Jordan in the post but she garnered even more attention without the team's three starting guards on the floor. The senior had to showcase her dribbling skills and push past her comfort zone.

Jordan moves on to Rio Grande in the fall to play for the Redstorm. The seniors' future college coaches could see how the new players handled adversity. Jordan always trusted her teammates when she was double and triple-teamed.

"Rio Grande actually recruiting me as a center to start," Jordan said. "I'm probably a four now. They can see that I can actually dribble. I've never shown that before this season. I've also shown I can shoot the 3-ball and I can pass it out to open teammates. I feel I'm more comfortable with that now."

Biggs feels the same way about her upcoming college season.

"My future college coach came to some of my games this year," Biggs said. "They can see me struggle at times. I think they want to see how I handled that adversity and how I would respond when I get put in a position that I'm uncomfortable with. It's going to help me prepare for the next level because I know I'm going to be put in a whole lot of uncomfortable positions for sure."

Boyd County endured several lopsided losses in the regular season's final stretch but wouldn't let that affect their ultimate goal. Biggs and Jordan knew that they couldn't do it alone. They left the court impressed each night as they watched their teammates evolve and endure on a bigger stage.

"These girls will remember this forever," Biggs said. "Baylee Stephens, who hasn't got a lot of playing time, she's a senior on this team who stepped up. Sophie Stevens will have a big role next year along with Bella and Jada. All the girls stepped up for us."

"I would also add Gracie," Jordan added. "She played well and made a lot of big plays for us. She helped us reach the region finals."

Fraley said Biggs's and Jordan's competitive nature took over during difficult times. Win or lose, they would not let adversity derail their postseason path.

"They were tremendous," Fraley said. "They were our best two players but they accepted roles that were different. They never once complained and they just went out with a team-first attitude. They showed up every day and they work hard every day. They were always competitors and they wanted to win. I really appreciate them and for what they sacrificed this year for our team."

Biggs said her senior campaign was "one for the books." The Lions showed that you don't need a trophy to prove you had a winning season.

"It was a season of highs and lows for every single one of us," Biggs said. "We won the 2A state championship and that was a huge thing for us. We also made it to the region championship without three of our starters. We have done that for eight straight years now. I think that's overcoming adversity for sure. These girls came together to play basketball. It's a sport that they love. It will be something that we will never forget."

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