With so much young talent back from a team that won the state championship in 2014, there was talk in Kentucky about the Butler High School girls basketball program becoming a dynasty.
By all accounts, the Bearettes did not handle that talk well during the 2014-15 season.
“Coaches, players, fans, I’m not sure any of us handled the success well,” Butler coach Larry Just said. “When we came back, I think we all had a perspective of how things should be and we just never seemed to get on the same page.”
Last season ended with a 23-6 record and a 56-53 loss to Bullitt East in a Sixth Region Tournament quarterfinal – a defeat many say has propelled the Bearettes back among the state’s elite this season.
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“People were putting us on a high pedestal and saying, ‘You have to go back,’” junior forward Janna Lewis said. “But we were still holding on to last year. This year is different because we want it more.”
Butler is back in the state tournament this week and will enter as one of the favorites to take the title. No. 2 in the state in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, the Bearettes (27-5) will face No. 11 Bowling Green (29-4) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in a first-round game of the St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Sweet 16 at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena in Highland Heights.
The Bearettes are in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in Just’s seven-year tenure at the school. None of those seasons was tougher than 2014-15.
Butler returned four starters and all of its top reserves from a team that beat Elizabethtown 49-38 in the 2014 state final. But something wasn’t right when the 2014-15 season began.
“The environment wasn’t the same,” Lewis said. “We had a lot of inside things going on. It was different. … We didn’t have the same energy.”
Just tried everything, at one point going to a platoon system in which groups of five subbed out for each other. He scrapped that toward the end of the season.
A late-season loss at Meade County was a harbinger, as three weeks later the Bearettes’ season ended against Bullitt East.
“I felt like things hadn’t really been settled for the better part of the year,” Just said. “On the outside I don’t know if people noticed or saw. But we knew inside things were not running smooth. We kept trying to figure out how to get everybody together, and obviously we never did.”
Just and his players say they learned from last season – how to adjust to new roles, how to handle adversity, how to get along.
One change was adding Terri Keown as an assistant coach. Keown was a longtime coach and former player at the school.
“I think the kids really enjoy her, and she’s good for me,” Just said. “She challenges me to look at some things differently than what I sometimes always do.”
Just said a major change during the season came after a 73-71 loss to Mercy on Jan. 15. Instead of using a more structured 2-2-1 press, Just went to a run-and-jump press that allowed his players to take advantage of their instincts.
“I could see us struggling with just playing,” he said. “I thought we were slowing down and thinking way too much.”
The positive results were immediate, as the Bearettes won the Louisville Invitational Tournament, defeating Male 68-54 in the final. Since that loss to Mercy, Butler is 14-1 and will carry a 10-game winning streak into the tournament.
Junior guard Jaelynn Penn said defense has carried the team.
“It’s just a pride thing,” she said. “You’re not going to score on us.”
The road to another state title will be tough, as the Bearettes are one of five top-11 teams in the bottom half of the Sweet 16 bracket. If Butler can get past Bowling Green, a meeting with No. 1 Elizabethtown could be waiting in Friday’s quarterfinals. E’town beat Butler 60-37 on Dec. 23.
But Penn said Butler will be ready for the challenge.
“We’re all together, and we all want the same goal,” she said. “It just clicks. … It’s a different mentality. Coming from that loss last year, we’re trying to prove ourselves again.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and email@example.com.