This story originally appeared in the March 3 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe here.
Maybe they were a year ahead of schedule last season when they advanced all the way to the state semifinals of the KHSAA Sweet 16 Tournament at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
But make no mistake, Cooper’s girls basketball team isn’t flying under anyone’s radar this season.
And the Jaguars are just fine with that.
“Our girls are just so locked in and they’re together all the time. We talked about coming into the season we had a pretty good idea we were going to be ranked one of the top teams in the state and in the region. We knew that our role was going to change a little bit as far as how people were talking about us and how people are going to challenge you every single night,” Jaguars coach Justin Holthaus said.
Challenge accepted as the Jaguars are 27-3 headed into Friday’s Ninth Region semifinals at Truist Arena. They’ve played the top flight teams in the region, and from around the state. Their only losses to in-state competition are to the No. 1 (Sacred Heart) and No. 2 (DuPont Manual) teams in the final statewide media poll. They’ve gone 12-0 against region opponents and defeated five top-20 teams in the state.
They’ve continued to show progress, now a much more mature team from the one that had just one senior on the roster last season.
They’re led by Ninth Region KABC Player of the Year and Miss Kentucky Basketball candidate Whitney Lind. Lind committed to Lehigh in June and her credentials throughout her career as a Jaguar warrant strong consideration for best player in the state on one of the best teams in the state. She’s led the team in scoring and rebounding since eighth grade as she approaches Lexi Held’s all-time program scoring record of 2,430 points.
But what makes this team special is how they distribute the ball. If teams want to key in on Lind, several others can hurt their opponent. They’ve got five other players that average at least six points per game.
“We’re very versatile. We have a lot of girls that do a lot of different things,” Lind said. “We have girls that can hit threes, we have girls that get offensive rebounds and put them back when we miss. We have confidence in every single person it’s going in or we’re going to get the rebound. When you have that confidence in each other, when you share it, good things happen.”
Lind, Kay Freihofer and Yamilet Rondon-River bring the senior leadership. They’re a tightly bonded unit that puts team over self. And they play hard no matter who the opponent is.
Despite beating teams by an average of 24.7 points per game, the focus on a game-by-game basis is just that – playing hard, especially on the defensive end.
“No matter who we play, we just always have to do what we do and play hard. We stress a lot on our defense and get a lot of stops and turn it into baskets,” Freihofer said.
Cooper allows 37.3 points per game, good for seventh in the state. It’s where they hang their hat.
“When we talk about what’s going to win us games, what’s going to win us district championships, region championship, it’s going to be on that defensive end so our girls really have bought into it,” Holthaus said.
While they haven’t had as much adversity as last season that came with nine losses before the state tournament and Freihofer breaking her hand, they know things could turn at any moment at this time of year where if you lose, things suddenly come to a halt.
“Our kids have bought into that mindset of competing every single day in practice and finding that high level,” Holthaus said.
The Jags aren’t going anywhere either. Even when the three seniors previously mentioned graduate, the pipeline is stocked full. Liz Freihofer, Logan Palmer, Bella Deere, Maleah Alexander and Payslee Jones will take over the senior leadership roles next season.
Damaysia Knox will also be a senior after missing the second half of the season to injury. Knox transferred in this season from Ohio, getting comfortable with her new surroundings but suffering an injury 13 games in. Knox holds a University of Dayton offer.
That’s before mentioning exciting prospects in sophomore Zene Thompson and eighth grader Haylee Noel, who impressed so much over the summer during AAU she received an offer from the University of Arkansas.
But first things first, another chance to play at Rupp Arena, the lifelong dream of a kid growing up in Kentucky to reach the state’s pinnacle at the state tournament. Cooper is just two wins away from doing so and they know they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.
“One game at a time,” Lind said. “No matter who it is, we have to be proud of the effort we put out there and be proud of the defense we play.”