SPARTA - When Cannon County's quartet of talented seniors entered the girls basketball program four years ago times were lean for a once-dominant Class AA program that had not made a region tournament appearance in three seasons and had failed to get out of the district only twice in the previous 10.The Fab Four - Taylor King, Chelsey Payne, Lauren Ruehlen and Emily Sissom - have helped changed the landscape and the foursome was solid as No. 8 Cannon County spanked rival DeKalb County, 70-21, in the first round of the District 8-AA Tournament at White County High School Thursday.
Cannon County (24-6) advanced into semifinal action against No. 5 Upperman at White County Saturday at 4 p.m., and clinched a Region 4-AA berth by virtue of its 29th consecutive win against DeKalb County, a streak dating back to 1999.
Cannon County has a rich postseason history but these four seniors achieved a program first by becoming the first class to advance into four region tournaments. In fact, it also marks the first time the Lionettes have ever made four consecutive region appearances.
"This is the fourth year in a row for these seniors to be in the region and that is quite an accomplishment," Lionettes sixth-year Head Coach Michael Dodgen said. "It is a testament to these kids and how hard they have worked. They have represented this program well."
They were instrumental in assuring their prep careers continued Thursday.
Sissom and King each scored 17 points to lead a balanced scoring attack against DeKalb County. King also added seven rebounds and six assists. Payne also had a strong all-around game with 12 points, six rebounds and seven steals. Ruehlen tallied seven points and helped ignite Cannon County's strong start. Lindsey Reed provided strong defense and allowed the Lionettes to get into transition early. She also added seven points, and Abbey Sissom added five points.
"We came out with focus and we knew what we had to do," King said. "There is no tomorrow if you lose so we had to come out and get after it. We have to maintain this intensity throughout the tournament."
With its postseason fate on the line, Cannon County left nothing to chance.
The Lionettes stormed out to a 28-8 first-quarter lead and stretched that margin to 40-14 by intermission.
"We had good focus early and really left no doubt," Dodgen said. "I'm really proud of the way the girls played tonight. One of our keys to the game was transition. We did a good job in our press and was really aggressive up top. That got us going and allowed to have some easy transition opportunities."
Cannon County got a welcomed boost with the return of sophomore guard Abby Jakes, who returned from a knee injury that had sidelined her for six weeks. Jakes played four minutes.
The reserves were as impressive as the front-line players during their stint. Cannon County outscored DeKalb County 31-6 in the second half, including a fourth-quarter blanking. The Lionettes used their reserves exclusively in the fourth-quarter shutout, opening the quarter with JoAnna Young, Emily Pemberton, Ashley Basham, Madison Walkup and Jordan Hollis. Macy Clements, Rebekah Faulkner and Janna Reed also saw action during the shutout stretch.
"I was proud of that group as they went in there and did what they were supposed to do," Dodgen said. "They played well and did a good job defensively."
The road does not get any easier as the District 8-AA Tournament semifinals features three of the state's top eight teams - No. 4 Livingston Academy, No. 5 Upperman and No. 8 Cannon County.