KCHS girls basketball team wins 2nd straight title

State tournament MVP Sydney Mains leads Lady Irish to 53-39 victory over rival Webb 

By Dan McWilliams

When leading scorer and Miss Basketball finalist Sydney Mains picked up her fourth foul and exited the game in the third quarter of the state-championship contest March 2, the rest of the Knoxville Catholic High School girls basketball team didn’t let that faze them.

The Lady Irish led rival Knoxville Webb 33-27 when Sydney left the contest at the 4:51 mark of the period. Knoxville Catholic’s remaining players maintained the lead until the end of the quarter, going up 36-29 heading into the final frame.

Sydney returned at the start of the fourth quarter and scored a team-high eight points in the period to lead the Lady Irish to a 53-39 win and their second straight Division II, Class AA state title at the Hooper Eblen Center on the campus of Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. For the second year in a row, Sydney was named the state tournament’s most valuable player. She was joined on the all-tournament team by KCHS’s Amaya Redd and Tinsley Walker.

Amaya led the Lady Irish (27-5) in scoring against Webb with 17 points as Knoxville Catholic finished the season on an 11-game winning streak. Sydney finished with 16 points. Tinsley made a trio of 3-pointers and scored nine points. Sydney Mains’ fellow senior, Caroline Krueger, and Margaret Frana scored four points each and Sydney English three. Amaya and Margaret had a game-high nine rebounds apiece as the Lady Irish dominated on the boards 33-16 over their West Knoxville foe, whom they defeated for the fourth time in as many tries this season. Caroline added six rebounds and a team-best four assists, and Sydney Mains recorded five rebounds.

Margaret Frana of Knoxville Catholic goes for a layup as Webb’s Cailyn Taylor (21) takes a tumble. Also pictured are the Lady Irish’s Amaya Redd and Lady Spartans Kyndall Mays (33) and Meeyah Green. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Lady Irish head coach Travis Mains was proud of his team for holding serve while Sydney, his daughter, was in foul trouble.

“That was huge. We need Sydney, but they’ve grown to where they’re just going to pick it up and roll with it,” he said. “I thought Amaya did an unbelievable job at the point. Maggie Frana had so many rebounds, Caroline so many tough baskets, and Tinsley shot the ball so well tonight. It was a team effort—it’s been that way the whole year. They stepped up. They believe in each other, and they believe in this old guy here”—speaking of himself—“and the coaches. It’s been a great journey. We look forward to next year, but we’re going to miss these two seniors like crazy. I’m just so grateful.”

Knoxville Catholic defeated Webb 47-26 and 44-39 in regular-season district games and outlasted the Lady Spartans 50-46 to win the Division II-AA East Region tournament title. The Lady Irish took only a few knocks in the regular season, losing 62-52 to Grace Christian and 64-42 at Bradley Central. Playing in the post-Christmas Ladies Classic in Greeneville again this season, Knoxville Catholic routed South Greene in its opener 75-47 before losing to Bartlett 55-52 and George Rogers Clark of Kentucky 72-50 in the consolation bracket. The Lady Irish lost at home to Bradley Central 65-53 on Jan. 27 in their only blemish in the 2024 part of their schedule. Bradley Central and Bartlett, playing in the top Division I, Class 4A, both reached the state tournament final.

“Our record looks like we breezed through it, but we played four really tough games with Webb. We took our knocks from Bradley Central and some team from Kentucky,” Mr. Mains said. “[The players] never said, ‘Why are you doing this to us, Coach?’ They never questioned us. . . . Hopefully, they’ll take this through the rest of their lives. When things are tough, you just keep pushing, keep showing up.”

KCHS finished second in the Ladies Classic in 2022, but the most recent edition of the tourney was a low point for the team. Sophomore guard Logan Connatser was injured, but other players, including Ariana Swain, who hit a 3-pointer in the state semifinals, came through.

A pair of No. 24s, Knoxville Catholic’s Sydney Mains and Webb’s Meeyah Green, go against each other in the state-championship game as KCHS coaches watch at left. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

“We weren’t playing really well after the Ladies Classic. We got eliminated in a 25-point loss,” Mr. Mains said. “Then we came back and had to reshuffle our lineup. We had to move Amaya and Sydney to the point and play kids who hadn’t played a whole lot up to that point. Every one of them stepped up in big games. Sydney English, Ensley Perry—we had to play without Logan for most of the year. People stepped up—Ari Swain hit a big 3 the other night. All these kids came together, whether they were the 13th or 14th person on the team and others were seven or eight, through the injuries—it was a lot of adversity, and it makes it pretty darn sweet to finish it with these kids and their character, it’s No. 1.”

Neither team scored a field goal in the state-championship game until Tinsley hit a 3-pointer with 3:25 left in the first quarter to give Knoxville Catholic a 7-0 lead. Tinsley made another triple with 1:22 on the clock, and Amaya added two free throws to give the Lady Irish a 12-9 lead at the end of the quarter. Sydney Mains picked up two fouls and left the game without scoring in the opening period.

Sydney hit a 3-pointer, Amaya made a layup, and Sydney added a jumper to put the Lady Irish up 19-11 at a media timeout with 5:14 to go in the first half. Webb scored nine straight points to take a 20-19 lead with 3:16 remaining. A steal by Margaret led to a Sydney 3-pointer to give the Lady Irish the lead for keeps at 22-20 at the 1:20 mark. A 3 by Sydney English with 2 seconds on the timer gave KCHS a 27-20 halftime lead.

The Lady Irish went up 28-20 early in the third quarter on an Amaya foul shot. Webb rallied to within 28-25 before Tinsley’s third 3-pointer of the game made it a six-point contest. Caroline sank a hook shot for a 35-27 lead midway through the quarter, which ended with KCHS up 36-29.

With Sydney Mains back in the game, the Lady Irish never let the Lady Spartans get closer than five points in the fourth quarter. Margaret made a layup and Sydney made two free throws and a 3-pointer for a 43-33 lead with 4:47 remaining. Amaya sank three free throws and a layup to make it 48-37 with 1:49 to go. Sydney made three free throws, and Amaya scored on another layup for a 53-37 lead at the 0:53 mark. Webb made two free throws down the stretch for the final margin.

Meeyah Green led Webb (21-9) with 12 points while Kyndall Mays added eight. Both made the all-tournament team.

Knoxville Catholic advanced to the state-championship game with a 45-40 victory over Christ Presbyterian Academy in the semifinals Feb. 29.

Sydney Mains led all scorers with 18 points while Amaya added 12 and Tinsley seven. Margaret led the team in rebounds with seven.

Lily Morrow scored 17 to lead CPA (18-13) and earn a spot on the all-tourney team.

The Lady Lions led KCHS 12-8 after the first quarter and were up 15-8 with 6:51 remaining in the first half. A layup by Caroline, a 3-pointer by Tinsley, two free throws and a layup by Amaya, and a layup by Sydney helped give the Lady Irish a 20-18 halftime lead.

The advantage changed hands a couple of times in the third quarter before Sydney’s layup with 2:20 on the clock put KCHS ahead to stay at 29-28. Amaya’s layup with 8 seconds left gave the Lady Irish a 36-32 lead going into the final period.

Two jumpers by Sydney put KCHS up 40-32 with 7:05 remaining in the game. CPA pulled within 40-38 with 2:58 to go, but a hook shot by Caroline with 1:48 showing and three free throws in the final 14 seconds by Sydney advanced the Lady Irish to the finals.

Caroline Krueger dribbles against Webb’s Cailyn Taylor in the state finals. Lady Spartans head coach Greg Hernandez watches in the background. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Knoxville Catholic won 55-37 at home over Harpeth Hall in the state quarterfinals Feb. 23. Sydney racked up 30 points and made seven rebounds and six steals, while Caroline tallied 10 points. The Lady Irish cut down the nets after the victory.

KCHS has made three championship games in the four years Mr. Mains has been head coach, losing in the semifinals in 2022 before capturing the program’s first state crown in 2023.

Mr. Mains and his wife, Lady Irish assistant coach Missey Mains, came to the high school when Sydney was a freshman in fall 2020.

“These girls have worked so hard. I know it’s a cliché, but they trust and they’re faithful. It’s special to be at a school like that where people believe, and they believe in each other. It’s a good spot,” Mr. Mains said.

After this year’s state title, it had not sunk in that the game against Webb was his last of the season.

“Not really,” he said. “I know about 3 o’clock in the morning, I was up looking at film. My belly was hurting, and my head was hurting, but, man, it feels pretty good now.”

He is glad to share the championship with his family, including his parents.

“We’re all in. We pushed all our chips to the middle of the table, and it paid out,” Mr. Mains said. “I know I miss my mom and my dad and my family back home.”

The best thing about winning the title was “the togetherness and the faithfulness when things were bad—they just bear down and focus harder. [Sydney] went out in the third quarter with four fouls, and [Webb] didn’t gain any ground. Our defense was excellent, and they played hard, getting through tough spots.”

KCHS’s two state titles have a different feel, Mr. Mains said.

“The first one, honestly, I wasn’t expecting that one,” he said, “and this one, about 4 o’clock this morning I wasn’t expecting it either. Sometimes, you try to tell yourself don’t be negative, but it creeps in there. Yeah, I believe anything now, going back to back and watching these kids grow is my biggest benefit in this job.”

Sydney Mains, a Florida Atlantic signee, took her fourth foul in stride and rallied her fellow Lady Irish players while she was on the bench against Webb.

“I knew once it was done, there was nothing I could do to go back and change it, so I knew I had to be a supportive teammate, and I had to encourage where I could and give tips and pointers where I could, just kind of doing the most that I could from the bench,” she said.

Sydney said there is “no better feeling” than capping off her Lady Irish career with a state title. “Doing it with my teammates and doing it with my family, truly these are my best friends right beside of me [at the postgame press conference], so I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Mr. Mains emptied his bench with 43 seconds left in the state final, and Sydney gave her dad a big hug when she came off the court for the final time.

“It makes everything so much more special. It was emotional for the game, knowing like, hey, it’s my last game, my last time on the court with these people,” she said. “I looked at a few of them and I was like, I wish I didn’t like you guys, honestly—it would make this a lot easier. It makes it even better, honestly. I don’t how to explain the feeling, but I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Hugging “every single one” of her teammates was a moment that stood out for Sydney, she said.

“It was more than just a game for us. It was closing a chapter for me and Caroline and opening up a new one,” she said, adding that the end of her high school career played out “in a celebratory way and not a grieving way.”

Sydney is the all-time leading scorer in Lady Irish history with more than 2,000 points, but she doesn’t want to be viewed as one of the best players to come out of the school. Instead, she credited her parents and assistant coach Carolyn Williamson for their efforts.

“I don’t really see it that way. I see it as I have great people around me who have been able to help me to become the person I am. They push me every day in practice to be better,” she said. “[Mr. Mains] has pushed me. He’s trained me, and so has my mom and our other coach. It’s the people around me who have made me better.”

In 2023, the Lady Irish faced the nation’s top player, Jaloni Cambridge of Ensworth, in the state finals. KCHS won despite Jaloni scoring 41 points.

Sydney Mains of Knoxville Catholic receives her second straight state tournament most valuable player award from Michel Sanchez of the TSSAA Board of Control. Ms. Sanchez, a member from Hunters Lane High School, represents schools in Athletic District 5. (Photo Bill Brewer)

“Last year, I felt like we all went into it with our knees knocking,” Sydney said. “We were like, ‘Oh, Lord, we’re playing Jaloni, she’s the best player in the country, like 41 points.’ That was very surreal, but like I said this time we had played [Webb] three times. It was like, OK, we can beat them, but it’s coming in not being comfortable with the fact that we had beaten them three times. It was more than just a game for us. I’m sure it was for them.”

Caroline, a Milligan University signee, spoke after the championship game about her two state titles.

“They’ve both been amazing, that’s for sure,” she said. “I feel like this season, we’ve had a lot of adversity. We’ve been through a lot together, and we’ve just stuck together, and I think that made it all the more special. It’s been really amazing to be beside these girls and fight through everything we’ve been through, and to go out on top is amazing.”

Each state title had its challenges, Caroline said.

“Last year, we had to play the No. 1 player in the country, so that was obviously a big deal; we were really nervous,” she said. “This year, it was our cross-town rivals, and it was the fourth time we’d played them. There was a lot of pressure on us. Everybody was telling us, you can’t beat a team four times, but we trusted the work we’ve put in, we trust our coaches, and we trust each other to know that we’re going to do the right thing, and just to go out on top and beat our cross-town rivals felt really good and made it all the more special.”

Tinsley said the Lady Irish dealt with the pressure of high expectations.

“I think we had to, in each practice, just trust each other that we can do this again,” she said. “And then just leaning on each other for help if anything’s ever wrong. Like Caroline said, we faced so much adversity this season, so we just had to trust what each other was going to do. I feel like there was pressure, but it wasn’t heavy.”

Tinsley also was up in the wee hours like her head coach before the fourth game against Webb.

“Last year, I felt like we were going to win, it was just that we were playing the No. 1 person in the state. This year, playing our rivals was really special, but I woke up at 4 o’clock this morning, too, anxious about the game,” she said.

Amaya agreed with Tinsley about “sticking together, pushing each other more, and getting through the adversity.”

When Sydney left the title game in foul trouble, Amaya knew what to do.

“I looked back and I told myself, you worked hard for this, and just do what you do. I was kind of getting scared because Sydney wasn’t in there, but then I had to step up,” she said. “Last year, I had the feeling that we were going to win, but this year I woke up at 4 o’clock, too, getting anxious, but then we pulled through.”

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