As Manual High School’s girls basketball players celebrated their return to the Sweet 16 after Saturday’s Seventh Region championship, their coach, Jeff Sparks, stepped back.
He accepted congratulations from his assistants and other supporters, and while he dabbed his eyes a couple times, he kept them on his Crimsons.
“This is what I wanted for them,” said Sparks, in his third year as Manual’s coach. “I wanted to see them enjoy success.”
Both Manual’s program and Sparks have had success in the past. Now, they’re enjoying it together. The Crimsons, who won it all in 2012, are in the state tournament for the 10th time overall and the first since reaching the semifinals in 2013. Sparks was an assistant on the 2004 state champion Sacred Heart team.
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And while some of this year’s seniors played on the 2013 squad, it promises to be a new experience for many of the Manual players. That’s why Sparks and his seniors – including Miss Basketball finalist Krys McCune – have been talking to the younger players about it, getting them ready for when they step on the court and face Murray at noon Thursday afternoon at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena.
“Krys has throughout the season made references to her state tournament experience her freshman year,” Sparks said. “It’s just been conversations with the team in meetings that we’ve had that say, ‘Look, my freshman year was such a great experience … so much fun to be a part of it. I want that experience again before I graduate.’”
The matchup between Murray and Manual may end up being the most even game in the first round. While the two schools are separated by about 225 miles and Manual has about 1,400 more students, only a fraction of a point separate the schools in the latest Litkenhous Ratings. Both teams have good depth as well as size.
Seventh-ranked Murray comes into Thursday’s game on a state-best 27-game winning streak, and the Tigers’ lone loss of the season came by two points against No. 13 Mason County at Lexington Catholic’s Traditional Bank Holiday Classic. The Lady Tigers won the All “A” Classic earlier this year and look to take another step by getting their first Sweet 16 victory.
“That is definitely a goal to strive to make school history” coach Rechelle Turner said. “Obviously, with the draw the First Region got in having to play Louisville Manual in the first round, we understand that it is going to be a high mountain to climb.”
Sixth-ranked Manual’s road to the Sweet 16 has been a little different, and Sparks has had to make a couple of adjustments along the way. The first came after the holiday break when the Crimsons lost three straight games. Sparks made some personnel adjustments that led to a stretch of eight wins in nine games, with the only loss an overtime one to Mercer County in the Louisville Invitational Tournament.
The next came at the end of the regular season, when the Crimsons lost to Male by 11 points at home. Sparks made some adjustments on defense, including the addition of a zone package. That’s led to Manual winning five straight in postseason play by an average margin of 29 points, capped by a 64-47 victory over No. 3 Male in the Seventh Region final.
“We’ve been able to cause some problems for teams because we can play a big zone,” he said. “You mix in some of the athleticism that we have, we’ve found some success with that.”