The exuberance and excitement that hundreds of McCracken County High School students - along with gleeful parents and teachers and staff members - displayed was matched by the joy and anticipation of the Mustangs boys basketball team as the two groups joined in celebration Tuesday afternoon during a pep rally in the Strawberry Hills Pharmacy Arena.
They came together to send the McCracken County Mustangs off to Lexington for the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16 game at 11 a.m. Thursday against Wayne County in Rupp Area. The game will mark the first-year school's premiere in the boys state tournament.
The team is the third Mustangs program to compete in a Kentucky High School Athletic Association sanctioned state tournament, joining the girls cross country team and the volleyball team.
"I'm really excited about this," said sophomore Mesa Trimm. "There's so much energy here, and we're all excited we made it to state. There's going to be so many people going from our student section, so I'm really excited."
Noah Houser, a junior, agreed. "This is just awesome. It's such a great experience. It's so fulfilling to be able to go to a school now where everyone is filled with pride and that we all come out to support each other for every basketball game. We're always there packed in the stands, and we're ready to see the Mustangs win."
McCracken County sold all 800 of its allotted student tickets in just under six hours stretched over a two-hour buying period Sunday and a four-hour session Monday.
"This is amazing, I've got chills just talking about it," Principal Michael Ceglinski said. "Everything we've done this year is historic. It's the first year for everything. It's the first year we're going to the boys state tournament. I just sit back as a principal and hope we can bottle this. This is almost like lightning in a bottle, and we want to build on this.
"What's this going to look like two years from now or three years from now, because this is setting us on a stage I never dreamed of. But it's amazing. I've told my people all we need to do is sit back and enjoy it, because this is fun."
Seeing the outpouring of support from friends and classmates was special for the Mustang team members.
"I'm really honored by this," said Kam Chumbler, a senior guard and the First Region tournament Joey Fosko Most Valuable Player award winner. "We can't really express with words how much we appreciate everyone supporting us. It feels great."
Junior guard Caleb Stonecipher added: "It's a great feeling knowing that every student in the whole school is supporting you. For a lot of people this might be a mini vacation before our spring break, so that's a nice feeling to have."
This time last year three schools - Heath, Lone Oak and Reidland - were ending their final years with the prospects of not knowing what would happen when they combined to form McCracken County High School.
"We talk all the time here how so many people had doubts about us coming together, and I attribute the successes we've had to these kids," Ceglinski said. "We've got a great senior class. Their leadership has been great, but we've got good adults that meshed well, too, and have led this process. I pinch myself, because this is something greater than anyone could have done. To watch this happen has been beautiful."
Said Trimm: "You for sure can see that everyone has come together. We've made it into one big school and we're doing well with it."
It was a desire to win that helped the basketball team jell.
"We never had a chance to win region at Heath, Lone Oak or Reidland, so when we all came together we said all we wanted to do was win," senior guard Jared Burnett said. "It didn't matter who scored or how it happened, we just wanted to win a region championship."
The hope is the Mustangs can stay in Lexington several days, but regardless what happens they are pleased to be a part of the Sweet 16.
"I know it's the first time for McCracken County, but some of these guys and actually a majority of our team wasn't even in the region tournament last year playing for who they did, so I'm really proud for our guys," McCracken County coach Burlin Brower said. "They really bought into what we said: Team first and individual later. It doesn't matter if you play one minute, 20 minutes or no minutes, you support your teammate, and it's been really good for them to play and be successful."
Call James D. Horne, a Sun sports writer, at 270-575-8661 or follow on Twitter @psunsports.