Top 10 NEKY Sports Stories: Area athletes score big in 2023

Jan. 3—Area teams and players got straight to the point over the last 12 months.

Monumental scoring achievements were made and award-winning performances commanded our attention in 2023.

It's hard to contain the accolades of our local athletes to a top 10 list. Several teams held on to their postseason status while we enjoyed seeing a few new faces enter the mix.

It was a banner year in sports and we await what the new year will bring.

10. 'Cropp' Top

Rowan softball only had one region title to its credit entering the 2023 season. The Vikings showcased a young but talented pitching rotation with Trinity Lambert and Kassi Perkins. Haven Ford, the All-Area Player of the Year, led the state in RBIs with 84 along with 19 home runs.

Rowan County also received its first taste of competing at UK's John Cropp Stadium at the state tournament. The Vikings won their first State games in school history, including a solid victory over Johnson Central in the quarterfinals, before falling in the semifinals to eventual champ Ballard after holding a late lead.

Coach Larry Slone decided to retire after his team tallied a school-record 35 victories. He spent 28 seasons directing the softball program he started at Rowan County. He ends a stellar career with 594 wins and ranks No. 4 on the all-time wins list, according to KHSAA.

9. No Change In Philosophy

It seemed nothing would deter Boyd County from winning its third straight 16th Region volleyball title. Not even a coaching change in the middle of the season.

Coach Katee Nelter resigned halfway into the 2023 campaign for undisclosed reasons and assistant Coach Jamie Clark took over on an interim basis.

The Lions promptly won 16 of their next 17 matches along with district and region championships and added another win in the state tournament opening round against Johnson Central.

The private schools didn't show any Mercy against the field when the state scene shifted to George Rogers Clark. The Jaguars defeated Boyd County before they advanced to the state finals.

8. Reaching a Goal

The Russell girls soccer team defined redemption this year. After an 8-11 season in 2022, the Red Devils ascended to one of the top teams in Kentucky. Russell finished 19-2 and reached the top 10 in the state rankings.

Russell claimed 63rd District and 16th Region titles. It allowed the club an opportunity to play two state tournament matches on its home pitch. The Red Devils won the first but fell to Boyle County in the second.

Ava Quinn became Russell's all-time assist leader during the 2023 season. Eva Blanke tallied 47 goals and Emma Stamper supplied 32 as the Red Devils broke several school records in the process.

Ashland also took advantage of familiar surroundings, winning the 16th Region boys title on its home field and hosting two state tournament contests as well. The Tomcats won 12 of their last 15 matches. They dropped a quarterfinal match to Lafayette.

7. The Final Frontier

Raceland knows the Kroger Field atmosphere well. The Rams have reached the Class A state football finals three times and for the first time in school history, Raceland made consecutive trips to the championship game in 2022 and 2023.

The Rams achieved 11 wins against a new-look and difficult schedule. Due to a lower-than-normal RPI ranking, the team had to navigate a postseason path back to Lexington on the road. After pulling away from Sayre in the region final, Raceland cruised past Kentucky Country Day in the state semifinals.

The Rams could not get past Class A perennial roadblock Pikeville in the title game. The bar has been raised at the program and coach Michael Salmons believes it makes his team hungrier to get over the final hurdle.

6. Heavy-Metal Scorer

Shaelyn Steele's 24 points against Fleming County on Dec. 14 included a historic mark. The senior became Russell's all-time scoring leader. Regina Carroll held the top spot for four decades.

The guard makes an impact on both ends of the floor but boasts a 21.3 scoring average this year and her current career point total stands at 2,631 points. The Penn State signee also leads the team in rebounding and shoots 87% from the free-throw line.

5. Don't Cross the Vikings

Rowan County dashed to a fourth-place finish at the state cross country meet in Lexington on Oct. 29, after securing its first region title in program history the week before.

"The key to this whole season is about depth," Vikings coach Michael Short said at the region meet. "I mean we have the depth from the seniors down to the seventh graders. The season has been one of those that anybody could be in any place in a given race. I think today showed we had the depth that we needed to pull off the win."

Autumn Egleston had nine top-five finishes in 10 races this season. The senior posted five wins during the season, including a region title. She placed fourth among 226 competitors with a time of 19:42 at the state meet.

4. Throwing a Party

Russell's David Harless picked the perfect time to display a personal best. He hurled the discus 168 feet, 9 inches on the big stage at Lexington to earn a state title in the event on June 3.

The championship moment was the final of six tosses on the day.

"(My) form and technique were probably the best they've been all year," Harless said at the state meet. "Coming into this meet, I felt really good in practice this week. My first throw of the finals, I knew it started to come back together. I threw a 160-something and I knew my form was coming back and it felt good. and then my final throw, I just pulled through, threw it hard and got it."

Harless also won a region title in the shot put two weeks before State after a 55-feet, 9-inch result at Mason County.

3. Top Tomcat

The 2023 calendar still had two days left before the new year when history was made at one of the most prestigious tournaments in the commonwealth.

Ashland's Zander Carter broke the Tomcats' scoring record after completing a tough drive to the basketball during a semifinal game against Jeffersontown at the Ashland Invitational Tournament.

The record stood since 1994 after Marty Thomas accumulated 1,873 points during his playing career. Carter knew the gravity of the moment after the Tomcats secured their 17th AIT title.

"It really hasn't fully set in yet," Carter said. "Everyone keeps telling me that when I come back someday, maybe with my own kids, I'll probably fully take it in. But right now, I'm just blessed and honored to just put on a Tomcat jersey. When I moved here my freshman year, they welcomed me from Day 1. But at the end of the day, I consider (the scoring title) a testament to my faith in Jesus Christ."

2. Feltner Family Flourishes

It was a year to remember for the Feltners on the court and the baseball diamond.

Kensley Feltner broke school records at Lawrence County and will forever be among the greatest scorers in Kentucky basketball history after scoring her 4,000th point against Greenup County on Feb. 17. Feltner currently resides in fourth on the state's scoring list with 4,189 career points.

The Bulldogs also recorded a historic number.


Lawrence County won its first region title a few weeks later, defeating Pikeville in the championship game.

"It shows that people from eastern Kentucky play ball," Feltner said. "A lot of people don't give us that credit because we don't have a big Lexington or Louisville city around us. We've had the opportunity to play on big stages this season and turn some heads. We have been playing very well and at a high level. We know what it takes to win."

The family was celebrating again over the summer when Morehead State won its first outright regular-season OVC title since 1979. Jackson Feltner played a prominent role in the Eagles' success. The infielder garnered All-OVC First team honors in all three seasons in Morehead and was drafted by National League champion Arizona in the eighth round of the MLB Draft in July.

1. Ford Tough

Haven Ford became the third player from northeastern Kentucky to be named Miss Basketball. She joins former players, Boyd County's Savannah Wheeler and West Carter's Megen Gearhart, who have won the award.

Ford's impact was felt off the court as well as on where she filled the stat sheet every night during her career at Rowan County. Before moving on to Murray State, she also won the Donna LJ Murphy Award given to a standout female senior basketball player who exemplifies the meaning of being a great student-athlete.

Ford told The Daily Independent in March that she froze in her seat after her name was called. She said the field of nominees contained so many talented players.

"It's a great honor," she added. "With all the Miss Basketball winners previously, you see how they impacted their community. They represented the state well. Moving forward, I want to do the same thing. I have the opportunity to stay in my home state to play college ball and represent Kentucky."

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