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What a year for the Mustangs

By Daniel Paulling dpaulling@paducahsun.com

The McCracken County student section wore a dizzying array of colors to the school's Valentine's Day boys basketball home game against Paducah Tilghman. Heath's former students dressed in black and gold, Lone Oak's in purple and Reidland's in red and white in homage to their previous schools.

Before tipoff, they covered themselves with a giant banner that highlighted in writing the three schools had consolidated to form one. With their adopted song of "m.A.A.d city" by Kendrick Lamar playing, the student section ripped the paper apart, revealing it had put on white Mustangs T-shirts.

The three schools were indeed united.

Those students, nicknamed the Stang Gang, witnessed a rare athletic year made more special because it came in the school's first after Heath, Lone Oak and Reidland consolidated in 2013.

The Mustangs and Lady Mustangs won six First Region team championships split evenly between the genders. The former won titles in basketball, tennis and baseball, the latter in volleyball, tennis and softball.

Michelle McKamey was McCracken County's lone state champion, winning the girls singles title in tennis. Teammates McKenna Garneau and Madelyn Kauffman reached the state doubles title match, and both boys and girls tennis teams lost in the state team tournament championships.

The softball team, which featured Kentucky 3A Player of the Year Jacqueline Roof, lost the final game of the season, and the volleyball and boys basketball teams reached the quarterfinals of their state tournaments.

While all three schools had some athletic success previously, McCracken County athletic director Kris Garrett didn't imagine he'd celebrate this much.

"You want to go in and think you're going to have a chance to compete for some of these regional titles, but there are so many great schools and great athletic teams in Region 1," he said. "What these kids accomplished in one year, it's something we're humbled by."

Yes, McCracken County owned a sizable advantage over other schools. Its student body numbered 1,872, ninth in Kentucky. Graves County was the next closest First Region team at 1,422 and Marshall County third at 1,332. McCracken County's teams had a large stable of athletes to choose their members from.

But the sheer size of the school also created hardships.

For one, Garrett, who was Heath's athletic director for five years, had to build a 6A program from nearly nothing. He hired all of his coaches over the first half of 2013, just months before competition began, and had to buy box after box of equipment and uniforms.

And imagine the challenge a coach such as Tony Hayden faced. Sure, the three softball programs won 81 games last year and were three of the top five First Region teams in wins. But Hayden had to find enough playing time to keep those stars happy while handling the pressure that comes with being the top-ranked team in the state for much of the season.

Garrett, though, said the athletes handled the transition well.

"That's one of the most remarkable things about this year, one of the things I was proudest of," he said. "I think there was more excitement. 'We're going to get to play together with these kids. We can combine these teams and have a chance to be very good.'

"I give credit to our coaches on building a program and a team and just creating a mentality of that mind-set that we're all Mustangs."

The baseball team, perhaps, provided the best example of the three schools meshing well.

The Mustangs' top three pitchers - Preston Frommeyer, Josh Scheer and Cole Womack - all came from Lone Oak. But they were complemented by Austin Mourad, who played a stellar third base and hit second after coming from Reidland, and Nathan Williams, who played left field and hit third after being at Heath.

"We've got contributions from all three schools," Mustangs coach Geno Miller said. "You don't want to get caught up in that, but that helps the chemistry of it."

With this athletic year over, McCracken County has several district championships to defend, as well as the six First Region team championships, when it begins its second year this fall. Local athletic directors don't predict a drop-off.

"I think they're going to continue to be a force to be reckoned with," Paducah Tilghman athletic director Dwayne Wall said.

"They will compete on a regular basis," St. Mary athletic director Brad Ehlers said. "(But) somebody will find a way to beat them at some point. All great dynasties come to an end at some point."

Garrett points to the athletes and coaches as responsible for McCracken County continuing to be successful.

"I think it's going to be maintaining the right attitude, coming in and buying in to the team philosophy," he said.

"They really bought in to this school."

Call Daniel Paulling, a Sun sports writer, at 270-575-8662, or follow on Twitter @DanielPaulling.

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