‘The Relationships Were the Best Part’

District Champion Basketball Seniors Reflect on a High School Career of Peaks and Valleys

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Photo courtesy of Paige Gray.

Seniors Bayley Bell, Kaniya Kendricks, Paige Gray, Kaiden Kendricks, Amber LaFollette, and Krista Cecil.

You need to think about how each other is feeling and look at them from different points of view. You should think about what if that person wasn’t there? You need every single person. You need them whether they play or don’t play — freshman, 8th grader, whatever.”

— Paige Gray

When senior Krista Cecil needs some input for a paper in her English 101 class at ECTC, she looks to five friends who have been her teammates for the last four years. The variety of their backgrounds makes for good discussion, and sometimes the group texts with long paragraphs of replies go on for an hour or so.  

A couple of months ago, the question was, “How do you think poverty affects cultural change in the U.S.?”

These six seniors have different views, yet they have a respect for each other that should set the example for the rest of society. 

“We like to learn from each other,” Bayley Bell said. “We learn different things from each other.”

“We can talk about the controversial topics,” Kaniya Kendricks said. “We really want to know each other’s opinions. We respect each other’s opinions.”

Perhaps that openness is what helped Cecil, Bell, Kendricks and their three senior teammates, Paige Gray, Kaiden Kendricks, and Amber LaFollette, accomplish something that hasn’t been achieved in the Central Hardin Girls’ Basketball program since the early 2000s: a record of 16-7, 17th District Championship and 5th Region Runner-up finish.

When these girls get together, it’s evident that they have a bond. When they are asked, “Who is most likely of you to be famous?” within seconds, they reply, “Kaiden.” Or when they are asked, “Who is most likely to name their kid something that other people make fun of?” in unison, they reply, “Paige!” followed by a good ten seconds of loud, genuine, boisterous laughter. If a person couldn’t tell from observing this kind of camaraderie, they’ll tell you their bond is special.

“The relationships on the team are more important than anything,” Bell said.

They claim that it’s not always like this, but it’s hard to believe. 

“CoJo (head coach Kristina Covington-Jones) says this constantly,” Gray said. “We do so well in the locker room. Off the court, we’re best friends. We’re always talking, we’re always hanging out. Our bond is great. Then we get on the court sometimes and it’s harder to mesh things on the court. We’ve gone through times when something is wrong and we don’t know what’s wrong. That was hard to figure out.”

Kaniya Kendricks agrees.

“In the beginning, we had a lot of confidence and trust in our teammate-type issues,” Kaniya said. “We’re a fun team, we’re very fast paced, but as soon as something goes wrong, we kind of let our confidence drop.”

With the help of each other and their coach, they were able to overcome these moments. 

“Every year, we have to have a sit-down,” Gray said. “[CoJo says] ‘Alright we gotta talk.’ People break down in tears.”

“CoJo will tell us at halftime of games, ‘this is what we did and need to do better, but that half is over,’” Kaiden Kendricks said. “[She’ll say], ‘this is what we didn’t do, and this is what we’re going to do.’”

That’s been the atmosphere throughout the last four years in the locker room, even the times when crosstown rival Elizabethtown tended to beat them anywhere from 30 to 40 points each game. 

When Elizabethtown entered the gym at North Hardin on March 18 for the District Championship game, they had not lost a district game in 13 years. When they left, they had all experienced something that none of their players were familiar with: a loss to Central Hardin, 49-39. 

“CoJo had told us, ‘they put on their jerseys the exact same way that you do,’” Kaniya said. “And she also said, ‘every team is going to go on a run,’ so that made me realize that they might do that, but we can too.”

LaFollette also recalls words from CoJo that stuck with her: “Anybody could have gotten better, anything can happen.”

“We really had to fight for it,” LaFollette said. “We went into it thinking that we know what we need to do, and we’re going to do it.”

“We looked at them as a basketball team, not just these individuals,” Gray said.

The team went on to defeat Campbellsville 50-38 in the first round of the regional tournament, followed by defeating Bardstown 61-59 in an exciting semi-finals matchup before falling to Bardstown Bethlehem 67-39 in the finals.

The idea of seeing opponents as a team and not individuals is exactly what this team has done for themselves to mesh into the team they are now.

LaFollette said that CoJo sits everyone down and talks to them about their role on the team. 

“She (CoJo) says to know your role, but it’s up to us to figure out what our role is,” Gray said. 

“I’m not going to try to take Amber’s spot and she’s not going to try to take my spot and do what I can do,” Kaniya said. “Know what everybody can do. As a team, you need to know what everybody can do, know your differences, and go from there.”

In fact, these girls even see each other as role models. 

“Mine is Amber,” Kaniya said. “She will sit there and give so much hype. She definitely brings energy to the team.”

“Senior-wise, mine is Paige,” Kaiden said. “She is always there to uplift us. If we’re having a bad practice, she always makes sure she brings the team together.”

What has motivated Gray to take on this responsiblilty? Maybe it’s learning from past mistakes on the team.

“In past years, a problem [on our team] was looking down at people by status,” Gray said. “Now we enjoy our differences more. You need to think about how each other is feeling and look at them from different points of view. You should think about what if that person wasn’t there? You need every single person. You need them whether they play or don’t play — freshman, 8th grader, whatever.”

Kaniya owns her flaws as a teammate.

“I give everybody a hard time. When I’m mad, I think everybody wants to literally kill me because when I’m mad, I’m very stubborn,” she said. “But then everybody comes together and they’re like ‘You got this. It’s okay.’ It’s fun having everybody different because they come with different things to say. Amber would probably say something uplifting. Paige would probably be like ‘get your stuff together!’” 

Because of this kind of love for and protection of each other, they were sometimes threatened with technicals by the referees. 

“Our bench is louder and crazier than any bench,” Bell said. “Sometimes the refs have to tell us they’ll T us up if we don’t sit down.”

At the District and Regional Tournament games, the bench didn’t have to generate all of the enthusiasm. The team saw their biggest student sections yet at these games. 

“CoJo had to take a moment when she saw the student section,” Kaniya said. “She got emotional.” 

Finally, the team that supports all the other teams had their own support. 

“Cojo picks a sport and says okay, everybody go to that game,” Kaniya said, “and there has to be a valid reason that you can’t.”

So what do these young women want their classmates to know about what they do? Kaniya was eager to share.

“Usually, people want to come out and watch the boys because they can dunk,” she said. “We can’t dunk, but girls’ basketball is fun to watch. Come out and support.”

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Whether she played for a few hundred people or a few thousand, a few years from now, after Bayley Bell finishes up her education at Western Kentucky University to become a dental hygienist, she’ll be telling people about the relationships she had with her basketball teammates in high school and how special they were.

After Krista Cecil, with her degree in biochemistry or biomedical sciences from Georgetown College, is in graduate school, she’ll say that her teammates are the reason she played basketball for so long. And she’ll have stories about playing college lacrosse to share.

After Paige Gray finishes up a golf career and psychology degree at Lindsey Wilson College, she’ll share her memories of overnight camps during her high school basketball days, and she might even share in her family counseling practice, that “perseverance is such a big thing, whether that means through losses, or disagreements or arguments or injuries, or whatever, . . . just persevere and stick with it.”

When Kaiden Kendricks is a dental hygienist after graduating from Western Kentucky University, she’ll be able to say that the relationships she built while playing high school basketball were the best part. She’ll say, “I think the reason why we picked it up in the end is because we had strong relationships in the locker room and off the court, so we played well on the court.”

After Kaniya Kendricks gets her degrees in international studies and Spanish from Northern Kentucky University in order to become a translator, she’ll still remember getting stuck in an elevator with her teammates in the summer of 2020, and she’ll have a lesson to share with others: “We all make mistakes. My confidence level can drop when I make a mistake in a high-stakes game. I think my biggest lesson is just to have confidence. . . . E-town beat us by 40-something points our entire high school career, and we overcame that.”

After Amber LaFollette majors in pre-vet medicine at Murray State University and later becomes a veterinarian, she’ll reminisce about how her teammates in high school built each other up. She predicts it. “I think that’s what we’re going to take most from this,” she says. 

And all six of them will be able to point at the banners in Terry Buckles Gym that read, “17th District Champions 2021” and “5th Region Runner-up 2021” and say, “I did that. My teammates and I did that, and I learned so much from them.”