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ALL ROADS LEAD TO RUPP: Pulaski heads to second-straight state tournament

Mar. 20—Heading into the 2023-24 season, a lot of people had doubts on the Pulaski County Maroons and with good reason, as the Maroons had graduated something along the line of nine seniors over the past two seasons and were now missing arguably the two best players in the 12th Region in Cayden Lancaster and Barek Williams. Then came a preseason injury suffered by Carson Fraley, the lone returning starter from last year, and many thought the dream of a two-peat was history for Pulaski.

But rather shockingly, the Maroons started out the season blazing hot with a 6-0 record, recording strong victories over Wayne County, Madison Central and Jeffersontown during the streak. A district loss to Somerset, on their home floor, brought an end to that streak, but head coach John Fraley knew early on that his team was ready to compete for another title.

"When you lose a strong player like Carson, one of the hardest things to do is make sure the kids mentally believe they can still play. To this group's credit, I don't think they ever wavered. Once I knew how we were playing without him, I knew if we could ever get him back we would have a chance," he explained.

Pulaski then suffered four losses over their next seven games and began to come down to Earth a bit. Regardless of the losses however, the poise of a lot of the players, who were just playing junior varsity last season, was staggering. Players like Jalen Wooldridge, Gavin Cook, Zak Anderson and Ethan Idlewine were stepping up big time, led by the sixth-man from last year's team in Will Blankenship.

"This group has won all the way through. No one has ever given them any notoriety and all they've done is win from sixth grade up. Undefeated as freshmen, undefeated as sophomores, we knew what this group had in them even if no one else did. I don't know if getting to Rupp last year made them hungrier, but they took full advantage of their opportunities and now they are going back," coach Fraley stated.

Pulaski began to get a bit of their confidence back with a tremendous road victory at Rockcastle County early in January and again rattled off six straight wins. Carson Fraley was soon back in action, in small doses, and everything looked to be going right again for the defending region champions. Another injury to Fraley, this one on the opposite knee, occurred during the Somerset game that saw the Maroons take down the Jumpers at the Briar Patch, making a crazy season so far that much crazier.

The Maroons struggled a bit after losing Fraley for more time, dropping their next two contests against Henry Clay and North Laurel. Winning four out of their last six games of the regular season, combined with getting Fraley back, albeit on two injured legs, gave Pulaski a bit of confidence heading into the postseason. Fraley stepped up massively in an overtime victory over Rockcastle in the 47th District semis that assured the Maroons a chance at defending their regional title, with clutch free throws down the stretch lifting his team to the win. Then came a third game against the Jumpers that, despite being close throughout, went the way of Somerset, meaning that Pulaski would have to play a district winner in the first round of the regional tournament.

In what can only be described as a magical run, the Maroons absolutely throttled an uber-athletic Boyle County team, came back from a double digit deficit in the fourth quarter against Mercer County and handled Somerset in a crosstown battle to claim their second-straight 12th Region crown. Not that bad for a group that no one thought would be here. Coach Fraley noted that, despite this becoming nearly a standard for Pulaski basketball at this point, he wants his players to focus on what got them here rather than what awaits them.

"What I tell our kids, is that it's not about the destination but it's about the journey of how you got here. We concentrate on every day just being like a family. We were the underdog for the first time in a while, and we just talked about having a chip on our shoulders instead of pressure on our shoulders," he elucidated.

Indeed it is coach. It's always about the journey, but for these Maroons, the destination is clear. They are Rupp-bound!

Jacob Pratt is the Sports Editor of the Commonwealth Journal and can be reached at jpratt@somerset-kentucky.com.