It’s an all-too-familiar story that the girls on Marshall County’s basketball team are tired of telling and admittedly tired of hearing. But it still bears repeating.
Just like the Lady Marshals themselves.
Senior guard Layne Pea described the scene that day on March 12, 2020, sitting in the Rupp Arena stands in Lexington and waiting to play their opening game of the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen against Henderson County, when head coach Aaron Beth received a message and told them to stay put.
Pea said many of the team’s friends began texting that they were outside the arena but the doors were locked and no one was allowed inside. Then she said she remembered glancing down to press row and seeing a computer with an email message the tournament was postponed due to COVID-19.
“We were devastated,” she recalled. “We were all super upset, but we couldn’t help it.”
“We were ready to play and almost ready to go into the locker room and change, and just to have that ripped from you at the last moment,” teammate Cayson Conner added, “it was really disappointing.”
So the state tournament and most everything else shut down due to the pandemic. But for the Lady Marshals, there remained hope. The team, with no seniors in their ranks, would remain in tact for the 2020-21 season. Pea was back. Conner was back. Halle Langhi, Jada Driver, Presley Jezik were all back, as well as supporting cast members who were part of that previous year’s 24-9 record.
If “WE’RE BAAAACK!” is their team cry, it really shouldn’t be a surprise. From not getting a shot at last year’s tournament to navigating a 22-2 run this season, Marshall County’s figurative and literal road just had to lead back to one place.
“We wanted to put ourselves in a position to get back to where we wanted to be, which was Rupp Arena,” Conner said.
A return to Rupp was all there was left to do.
“We had a great regular season but we needed to go ahead and finish off what we needed to do in the region to get that chance to go back to Rupp,” coach Beth said. “We are definitely focused and prepared and ready to go up there and play multiple games, but at the same time the pressure we’ve felt all year has kind of been taken away because we took care of business down here.”
That pressure, Beth said, was present all along from the late fall preseason practices through their regular season, but began ramping up as the postseason got underway.
“Everybody was talking about ‘When you all go to Lexington, you’re going to be playing this and you’re going to be doing that.’ You can’t overlook anybody, anywhere at anytime,” he said. “They did a great job of staying focused and kind of blocking out that outside noise and just doing what they needed to do.”
What the Lady Marshals did was take the Fourth District championship then roll through the First Region tournament against Paducah Tilghman, Graves County and McCracken County by a 164-76 margin. Along the way, Marshall also claimed the top spot in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association defensive stats by holding teams to an average 33.9 points per game.
Prior to 2019-20, the Lady Marshals’ last Sweet Sixteen was in 2014. Perhaps with that six-year gap and dealing with the pandemic, along with the tragic 2018 school shooting that claimed two of their classmates, a constant message Beth preached to his charges was to take advantage of each and every day.
“You just never know when the unexpected is going to happen,” he said. “Their maturity, the fact they get along so well and like each other, I think it would have been a lot more difficult if they didn’t have the chemistry that they have.”
Their scoring averages are clumped close together. Conner leads the Lady Marshals with 13.1 ppg., but junior post player Langhi is close by at 12.6. Driver, a fellow junior and 3-point threat, is averaging 9.7 ppg., followed by seniors Pea (8.3), Sophie Galloway (7.6) and Jezik (5.5).
A transfer, Galloway was a new addition for this year’s team but the bond between her and Beth stretched back years when Galloway was a young kid and Beth would kid her about playing basketball for him one day.
“This was when she was cheerleading and then she was doing track, and one day she shows up and said she’s ready to play,” Beth recalled. “It caught me off guard, to be honest, because it was always a kind of joke.”
Beth, who was then head coach at Graves County High School and took that 2016 team to the Sweet Sixteen, brought Galloway into their fold in 2017. The next year as a sophomore, she led the Lady Eagles in scoring (12.4) and rebounds (7.7 per game).
On Graves County’s track team, she also earned state titles in 100-meter hurdles in 2019, long jump and triple jump in both 2018 and 2019. Galloway, who signed with the University of Tennessee track and field team this year, even holds the state triple jump record.
“She added a very unique piece to our puzzle,” Beth said. “Her athleticism on the defensive end, it just adds a whole different dimension.”
Gabbi Lovett has added a spark to the practice squad and who routinely tests the starters’ offensive skills. Lovett had played ball with her fellow seniors since the age of five, but took off the 2019-20 season only to return for her and their senior seasons.
“She doesn’t get a whole lot of playing time because those top six (players) are awfully talented and when we get going I don’t really tend to sub a whole lot,” Beth said. “But she’s come in and given us spurts on the defensive end. She’s played her role 100% like she needed to. She’s great in practice, really challenges them. She can be physical. She can guard the post and be physical with them.”
That senior roster, along with Maddie Darnall, and the full Lady Marshal team jelled at the right time last year and remained that way through 2020-21. But the accomplishments to this point were deeply rooted years ago and have remained so despite challenges and changes along their road back to Rupp.
“I love these girls more than anything,” Pea said with a grin from the sidelines at a recent practice as she watched her teammates run drills. “It’s just really great that we made it back for a second time. This is what we’ve been working for since we were little. This is something we’ve always wanted to do and this year we really have a good chance to prove something.”