The Lady Irish defeat a strong Ensworth squad 64-59 in the finals as Sydney Mains earns MVP
By Dan McWilliams
On paper, the Ensworth High School girls basketball team and its 27-4 record made it seem like a heavy favorite over Knoxville Catholic High School in the Division II-AA state championship game March 4 at Eblen Center in Cookeville.
The Lady Irish ignored that paper. They entered the game 21-11 but pulled off a 64-59 victory to earn their first-ever state title on the campus of Tennessee Tech.
Junior Sydney Mains poured in 33 points with five 3-pointers to lead Knoxville Catholic in scoring while sophomore Amaya Redd added 14 points off the bench. Sydney earned tournament most valuable player honors while Amaya and senior Jazmin Williams, who recorded six rebounds and five assists in the final game, made the all-tournament team.
Head coach Travis Mains said he was “very proud” of the Lady Irish.
“They went through a lot of adversity and came out on the better side,” he said.
Injuries and a challenging schedule led to some early losses for the Lady Irish before the team turned it on down the stretch.
“We played a really, really tough schedule,” Mr. Mains said. “Our schedule was ranked the No. 1 schedule in the state of Tennessee on MaxPreps and on CoachT, so we played a lot of really good teams earlier in the year without three of our better players.”
Mr. Mains, along with his wife, assistant coach Missey Mains, are Sydney’s parents.
“It’s fun to coach her,” Mr. Mains said. “She’s a good kid and a good person. She’s my daughter, too, but she’s just a good person, and she works really hard and is a good teammate. I’m more proud about her being a good teammate and working hard than making all those shots.”
Sydney, who has college visits coming up, put the Lady Irish ahead to stay with a layup at the 4:05 mark of the fourth quarter.
“They were just going back and forth,” Mr. Mains said. “I think there were 17 lead changes and eight ties in the game. She kind of wanted to win really bad and focus really hard, and her teammates got her the ball in good spots for her, and she made her shots.”
Evaiya Mitchell, another Lady Irish reserve player, accounted for seven straight team points in the third quarter to turn a 36-32 deficit into a 39-38 lead.
“Amaya Redd played really well in the championship game. Evaiya Mitchell came off the bench and scored seven points in the third quarter for us when we were looking really flat and gave us a lift, and that’s kind of how it was the whole season—we had different kids step up at different times,” Mr. Mains said. “Jaz led playing defense and rebounding and assists. She’s just a really good player. We’ll miss her next year.”
Jazmin is a Bluefield University basketball signee.
The Lady Irish overcame a phenomenal game by Ensworth junior Jaloni Cambridge, the top-rated player nationally in the class of 2024. Jaloni scored 41 points and made 13 rebounds in the championship game.
“She’s special. She’s legitimately the No. 1 player in the country,” Mr. Mains said. “I’ve watched her since she’s been in the third grade, and she’s won everything. Jaz and Sydney have played against her when they were younger and lost, and this was the first time they’ve played and beaten her, so it was a special experience for them as well.”
Winning KCHS’s first girls basketball state title “is huge,” Mr. Mains said.
“We play in this private-school Division II,” he said. “All the teams are so good. Everything kind of has to piece together for you to win. I guess it was our year to win, because you never know if you’ll be back in that situation. You’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Ensworth jumped out to a 10-0 lead over KCHS and led 16-9 after the first quarter. The Lady Irish outpointed the Tigers 20-11 in the second period to take a 29-27 halftime lead. Six free throws by Sydney, who went 12-for-15 from the line during the game, and a 3-pointer by her turned a 20-13 deficit into a 22-20 lead. A layup by Amaya gave KCHS a 24-21 lead before Ensworth rallied to go up 27-26. Caroline Krueger’s layup and a free throw by Tinsley Walker gave the Lady Irish the halftime advantage.
Evaiya’s scoring surge in the third quarter kept Knoxville Catholic close, but the Tigers took a 43-41 lead into the final frame.
Sydney’s go-ahead layup midway through the fourth quarter started a 13-8 run by the Lady Irish to end the game. Ensworth pulled within two points multiple times, but layups by Sydney and Amaya, six free throws by Sydney, and a foul shot by Amaya held off the Tigers.
In the state semifinals, the Lady Irish—except for a 10-10 tie early in the second quarter—led wire to wire in a 56-46 victory over Harpeth Hall. Sydney scored a game-high 27 points, made three steals, and tied Jazmin and Amaya for the team lead in rebounds with six. Jazmin added a team-high eight assists. KCHS posted leads of 10-8, 23-20, and 39-31 at the quarter breaks.
Tinsley with seven points, Amaya and Caroline with six each, Jazmin and Logan Connatser with four each, and Margaret Frana with two also tallied for the Lady Irish. Ensley Perry and senior Kate Pettinger also saw playing time for KCHS.
Taylor McCall led the Honeybears (25-5) in scoring with 16 points, while Ava Krumwiede added 10 points and nine rebounds.
Sydney said the Lady Irish’s first state championship “means a lot to us.”
“The seniors were sophomores when this program began the turnaround. They are the leaders of our team and lead by example,” she said. “Our goal all season was to send the seniors out with a state championship, so accomplishing that was the rewarding part of it all. Jaz and I have played travel ball together for around the last nine years. We couldn’t end our playing days together with a loss.”
Ensworth’s superior record did not faze the Lady Irish. “By playing together as a team,” Sydney said, KCHS achieved the victory.
“Our coaches preach sticking to our principles and roles, which means play within our offense and take shots that we practice. I think we did that,” she said. “We all understand our roles, and we play for each other. That’s why we have been successful.”
Sydney said she does not feel the burden of being the team’s leading scorer and was surprised at tallying so many points in the state-title game.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize that I had scored 33 points. I was taking shots that I practice, and they were in the rhythm of the offense,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get open to score if it wasn’t for my teammates. We are all supposed to score within the framework of our offense—that’s what makes us dangerous. I am not the only shooter on this team—Logan and Tinsley have both had great shooting games, too. When my shots are not falling, someone else’s will be. So I wouldn’t say that I am burdened to score—everyone has stepped up in different games all year.”
She said she is “pretty used” to having her dad and mom coach her.
“They’ve coached me since fifth grade either in travel basketball or school basketball,” Sydney said. “They also separate being my coaches and parents. So while at practice or in a game, I don’t see them as my mom and dad. When I am at home, they are not my coaches—they are mom and dad. If they are mad at me for not doing laundry, they don’t make me run.”
Most of KCHS’s losses came in the 2022 portion of its schedule. Low points were lopsided defeats home and away against Bradley Central, the latter coming right after the New Year. Before the calendar changed, though, the Lady Irish finished second in the prestigious Ladies Classic in Greeneville.
“[The state title] has been our goal all season, but we definitely got off to a slow start, and people doubted us,” Sydney said. “We knew that if we could get healthy that we had a shot at winning it all. The Ladies Classic in Greeneville was kind of our turning point. We went into that tournament saying it was the start of a new season for us. We came in second in that tournament and only lost like four games from that point to the championship.”
Sydney said she is “blessed to have several scholarship offers from colleges at this point.”
“I am not ready to narrow down any of my options. Travel basketball season is pretty important as far as playing on the next level. I didn’t get to play in front of colleges last summer because of my knee injury, so I am looking forward to playing this summer. I think I will have a better idea around August as far as finding the school that is the best fit,” she said.
Fellow junior Caroline said the Knoxville Catholic seniors “have sacrificed so much for our team, and they are amazing people, and we wanted to send them out on a positive and history-making note. We were able to do that for them, which was really exciting. The main goal has always been to win a state championship, and we knew we had a really strong chance to do it at the beginning of the season despite what others might have thought.”
Ensworth and its top-rated player did not intimidate the Lady Irish.
“We knew that Ensworth was a good team, and they had the No. 1 player in the nation, so we knew that we had to contain her as much as possible and play as a team,” Caroline said. “Coach Mains gave us the best game plan to lead us to a huge win, and he told us we were the best team there. Since basketball is a team sport, the best team wins, and that’s what we went out and did.”
Caroline added that the Lady Irish have players whose efforts don’t always show up in the stat sheet.
“One of the best parts about our team is that everyone knows their roles, and they are happy to play those roles,” she said. “Some people rebound and score, while other roles go more unnoticed like solid defense, making the offense flow, and even cheering on the bench. Everyone executed those roles really well, and that helped us win.”
The Ladies Classic helped defined those parts of the team, Caroline said.
“Once we started the Greeneville tournament, we really set into our roles,” she said. “We had almost everyone back from their injuries, and we really started getting into a flow. We are such a tight group, and that translated onto the court for us. We knew our strengths and played close to those, and we knew our weaknesses and tried to stay away from those.”