"It has been a journey," says Apollo Girls Basketball head coach Natalie Payne. "And it's been a rewarding journey, as well."
Like many hero's journeys, Apollo's march to the Kentucky Sweet 16's, their first in a quarter of a century, began with a rough start, one that included a pair of Coronavirus shutdowns that threatened to derail their title hopes early.
"It's really heartbreaking at first," said Apollo senior guard Zoe Floyd. "Getting the phone calls. Getting the text messages. Knowing that you're shutdown and you can't go get on the bus tomorrow, or you can't go to practice and stuff."
"Wanting to play college ball and wanting to do everything you wanted to do this season, and everyone looking at us as up here at the beginning of the season," said Apollo senior guard Kassidy Daugherty. "And it was like we couldn't get going."
"We've had kids with illnesses, with injuries," said Payne. "We've been shutdown twice, so over a month that we were out. So we would start and then stop. So it was difficult for the kids."
However head coach Natalie Payne's squad turned their scars into stars, finding the seeds of victory in the ashes of illness and defeat.
"They hung on and they believed and we kept pushing," said Payne. "If anything, it may have made us more fresh at the end of the season. So we've tried to take that to our advantage and run with it."
"We just took it as motivation," said Floyd. "Hey look, all these other people get to play games, while we're sitting at home. We're coming back, and we're coming better, and we're coming times ten and getting what's ours."
And what's their's is a ticket to the Sweet 16's, a first for the program since 1997, when Payne made the trip as a player. And the head coach on that team, Willis McClure, is making the trip as well, as an assistant, in his 50th and final season on the Apollo bench.
"He's the heart and soul of our program and these kids know how much time and effort and time away from family that he has spent to pour his heart into these kids," said Payne. "And kind of pave the way. With his experience, they're looking at him like he's leading us and they believe in him. He's made such a positive impact and we are. We're playing for him."
"We love him," said Daugherty. "Absolutely love him. He's kind of like the grandpa on the team. He's right there to pat you on the back and let you know that it's fine. He just gets us going now. He's got a little chant before every game. He's our rock, for sure."
"Coach McClure is a really good friend and an amazing mentor," said Floyd. "Just knowledgeable. He knows the game so well. And put his two cents, which he's really, really smart. He really knows the game. And he's taking the time to get to know us, and he means a lot to us."
And the E-Gals will need all that coaching experience as they face off against perennial 2nd Region power Henderson County. A team that beat Apollo 50-33 on March 9th.
"I see toughness," said Payne. "I see a gritty group that's led by a coach that has a lot of experience. He's a warrior too. He coached when I played, so I know what he's about. His kids are a reflection of him. They work so hard. It's going to come down to the team that can't get three stops in a row, consecutively, throughout the course of the game. And can withstand runs and just maintain."
"Their defense is also what kind of gets them going," said Daugherty. "They are amazing at help defense. They will forget about the farthest man away just to make you freak out and turn the ball over and they're good at it. We're just going to have to chill out and find the open man."
And finally, how will the the E-Gals contend with the stage itself. Kentucky's grandest. Rupp Arena.
"The coaches said they'll give us about three or four minutes just to be excited, let the excitement and the lights and the people get to us," said Floyd. "After that, we're zoned in. We're focused. We're ready to go and we're going to do what we set out to do."