Written by Les Dixon of the 13th Region Media Network.
LONDON — When the season started, North Laurel coach Nate Valentine said his team’s goal was to get back to Rupp Arena and have an opportunity to compete for a state championship.
They accomplished step one of reaching Rupp Arena for the second straight season, and now need to reel off four more wins to be crowned as the state’s best boys’ basketball team.
“Kentucky high school basketball is so special. It begins with 278 teams competing for one championship,” Valentine said. “We are so happy our players were able to win the 13th Region tournament.
“Although, we certainly had a difficult path to get back in the championship game, I feel the draw came out the best for us,” he added. “We needed to have a challenging road to push us to play better. We really had to dig in and find a way to win the first round game against Harlan. We just kept telling our guys that every team has to go through a game like this in a tournament. I think the schedule and experiences we had this season prepared us for that moment. Every guy that played in the game had a critical part in the win.”
North Laurel will enter this week’s UK Healthcare Boys’ Sweet 16 as the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Dave Cantrall’s Rating The State top-rated team.
The Jaguars have an 84.7 rating while Warren Central is second with an 84.3 rating. Rounding out the top four of the Sweet 16 teams are George Rogers Clark (83.9), and Male (83.7).
“This year’s Sweet 16 field is loaded once again,” Valentine said. “I know our players and coaches will work as hard as they can to survive and advance. We’ll have to be ready to adjust and make changes just like we have all year. Our players have put in a lot of work this season and they have a tremendous amount of pride in representing the North Laurel community. Growing up, its every kids’ dream to play in Rupp Arena in the Sweet 16 and I’m thrilled they get this experience.
“We have just really tried to focus on our team this season,” he added. “It’s really easy these days for kids to get distracted by social media, accolades, awards, and opinions of others. I think all the attention we received in the past three years helped prepare us to handle this season. We have a really unselfish group of kids that just want to win right now. They’ve learned that if our team has success, the individual success will follow.”
North Laurel has had many ups and downs this season while dealing injuries, and playing one of, if not the toughest schedule in the state.
After starting the season with five consecutive wins, the Jaguars went through a spurt where they posted a 4-8 mark.
They then won seven of eight games before falling at Madison Central, 74-58.
“I think the Madison Central game was a pivotal game for us this season,” Valentine said. “Playing an extremely difficult schedule along with several injuries, we really didn’t have a good barometer of where we actually were at any point in the season. We really felt like we had a lot of room for improvement in February just because we hadn’t had our entire team together yet.
“We were really disappointed in our loss at Madison Central on February 4th,” he added. “It wasn’t so much about our poor play, it was more about the way we handled adversity and kind of left each other on an island. I think that loss galvanized our team and got our season headed in the right direction.”
With the Sweet 16 just a few days away from tip-off, Valentine said he made sure to tell his players to not take anything for granted.
“We won our third consecutive district title and second consecutive 13th Region title,” he said. “Our players and coaches have worked extremely hard to get this program in this position, and we certainly couldn’t have it done it without having really good players. We have some really talented young kids in our program right now as well. I hope we can keep the culture and momentum this group of seniors have worked hard to attain.”