The Mason County Lady Royals might have to be considered the prohibitive favorite to win the 10th Region -- particularly when about 2016 and 2017 roll around.
That's because the rising seventh-grade Lady Royals have spent this past school year playing together as an AAU team, culminating in last week's AAU Division 2 sixth-grade national tournament in Kingsport, Tenn. There Mason went 5-2, won the consolation bracket and finished 17th in the country.
This, by the way, was playing almost exclusively against "select," or essentially all-star, teams. Mason went an astounding 46-13 overall during the 2010-11 campaign, with each of the 10 players seeing significant minutes as contributors.
The team has been playing in AAU competition since they were third-graders. They've compiled a 146-51 mark during that time, when they've played against school teams from Fleming County and Bullitt East, coach Brian "Rabbit" Littleton said, but mostly against select squads.
The main goal, unlike most AAU competitors, is not to hone individual skills.
"We set a goal to win every tournament we play in, every game we play in, but our ultimate goal is to win the 10th Region championship and compete for the state championship," Littleton said. "That's our ultimate goal."
The Lady Royals' last region title was in 1987, the last of five straight. This coaching staff doesn't see any reason why that drought shouldn't end soon.
"(Mason's) got a great football program now, got an awesome boys' basketball program; there's no reason why this school can't have again another good girls' program," assistant Jeff Frodge said.
Mason displayed plenty of balance during the tournament, with four different leading scorers -- Madison Butler, Jordan Frodge, Maddie Boone and Whitney O'Mara.
"You go scout other teams, you can find one or two players ... who we need to stop," Littleton said. "Our team, you just can't pick one or two players."
That's due in part, Littleton said, to not having a "go-to scorer," which he said was a need. But he's pleased with the girls who are playing.
"If you ask me, would I rather have one star and a bunch of mediocre players, or a bunch of great players, I'll take a bunch of great players," he said.
That, plus solid assistants -- Frodge, Vickie O'Mara and Jimmie Campbell -- and supportive parents, help the team achieve success, Littleton said.
"This is why we're successful and I think why any team can be successful: I think number one, you've gotta have assistant coaches that love what they do, love their job on the bench," he said. "We've got parents that they call me and ask me when we're starting instead of saying, 'We're starting already?' They're asking me, 'When do we start?'
"And you've gotta have kids, girls, that will absolutely run through the wall for you. ... They want to get better every practice and every game. Just very unselfish, that's what this team is. Everybody on the same page."
The tournament gave the Lady Royals practice dealing with pressure, designed to help them grow as a team before the real pressure sets in during high school play, Littleton said.
"Hopefully, when they get in high school and they go to the district championship game, (it's) just another game for 'em," Littleton said. "And when they go to the state tournament hopefully, hey, they've been in a national tournament."
Some of the Lady Royals saw the tournament as proof that familiarity as a team can trump sheer talent.
"All the girls on that team, we already have like a friendship or a bond, we're already bonded," Whitney O'Mara said. "So that way we know each other, so we can play more as a team than ... AAU teams."
Littleton and his assistants also pointed out that new Mason varsity coach Piper Akin has been "really positive" and assistants Jason Butler and Joe McKay have been "supporters from the beginning." Steve Curtis has been "instrumental" and worked "endless hours" for local peewee leagues, Littleton said, and he also wanted to thank the community for supporting fundraisers, local businesses for donating money, and the school administration.
"I want to thank the parents and the grandparents and the coaches and family and friends that come and support us," Brianna Littleton, the coach's daughter, said.
"Without them, none of the things that we've done (are) possible," Jordan Frodge added.
Rabbit Littleton said all those pieces add up to a team fun to watch.
"I think that people will want to come and watch 'em play," he said.