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Apr. 10—Even a COVID-19 mask couldn’t hide the pain and disappointment on the face of Apollo High School girls’ basketball coach Natalie Payne on Thursday during a Zoom post-game press conference in Lexington’s Rupp Arena.

Payne’s E-Gals had just come out on the short end of a 55-31 result to neighboring rival Henderson County in the opening round of the girls’ KHSAA State Basketball Tournament, and it showed.

The ultimate competitor as a player and as a coach, Payne had hoped the E-Gals would be more competitive against a quality Henderson County team that had defeated Apollo by 17 points a month earlier, but it was not to be.

Nonetheless, Payne knows that her program turned a significant corner in 2021 — battling through two COVID-19 stoppages, battling through illness and battling through the psychological barrier that Apollo had last won a 3rd Region championship when she was a senior star in 1997.

Payne understood that the E-Gals had battled through all of this to make a return to Sweet 16.

“We finally found our identity,” Payne said, not just referring to her team but her program. “I’m so proud of everyone on this team.”

It was that kind of season for Apollo, which exhibited a steely perseverance through it all on the way to 9th District and 3rd Region tournament titles.

“This is not how we wanted it to end,” junior guard Shelbie Beatty said afterward, “but we’ve been through a lot and we stayed resilient the whole way — no matter what we were going through or who we put out there on the floor.”

Payne acknowledged this just prior to the postseason — already knowing that the pendulum was swinging back in the direction of the E-Gals, who had dominated girls’ basketball in the 3rd Region during the 1990s, winning five titles.

“This is a really great group of kids who have bought in to what we’re trying to do here — they’re all in, and that’s starting to show on the court,” Payne said. “This is a group that’s played together for several years and they believe it’s their time to win (championships), their time to do something special.”

And, once Apollo captured district and regional crowns, Payne understood that a monumental step had been taken.

“We needed to get over that hump, and we did,” Payne said. “Now, I believe the momentum of this, understanding that we can get it done, will carry over throughout the program for years to come. We just had to get back to this position to make it a reality.”

And this year’s seniors — Amber Dunn, Zoe Floyd, Kassidy Daugherty, Addison Carter and Brylee Rhodes — will long be remembered as the foundation for what the E-Gals are hoping will be a bright new era.

“Our seniors have been great throughout everything,” Payne said. “Our seniors have led the way for us.”