William Adams: Griffith offers guiding hand

Mar. 10—MOREHEAD — When Russell won the 16th Region championship in 2021, the leaders on this year's team were just finding their footing as players and still trying to grow into their potential.

The same players came together with their younger teammates to claim the 2024 region crown on Saturday and put that growth on full display.

Russell won its fourth region crown under coach Mandy Layne. Two seasons ago, Layne brought in an assistant coach who shares a similar postseason resume and she holds the same number of region titles during her high school playing career.

Haley Sue Griffith, who might be better known to some by her maiden name, Foutch, is no stranger to success in the 16th Region. She won four straight region championships with Ashland from 2012 to 2015.

That success has put her into the perfect position to help guide this group of athletes who are in the same position she was a decade ago.

"I'm extremely proud of them," Griffith said. "They've worked very hard this year. Sometimes it might be a little bittersweet getting to watch them do what I love, but I'm just so proud of them."

In addition to claiming those region titles, Griffith also made it to the Final Four in 2014 and joined the 1,000-point club at Ashland in her career.

"When you win four region titles, you have a lot of good feedback to give," Russell coach Mandy Layne said. "So, I think she's given a lot of good feedback to the girls."

Layne says that Griffith has not only helped guide the team through her experience but has also been there to help nurture the players as well.

"She's actually a very motherly figure," Layne said. "So, the girls are really able talk to her when they need stuff and she gives great knowledge during practice. She's just been a great addition to our staff."

The motherly tendencies kicked in during Russell's semifinal game against Ashland. Griffith says she felt like she was watching her kids grow up, when Hannah Sanders huddled her teammates up late in the contest.

"Hannah got everybody together and she was just screaming and clapping and was like we got this," Griffith said. "I almost got very emotional. I was just overcome with emotion and their passion and their intensity and then I just felt this like peace. I was like, we're good."

Russell senior Bella Quinn said Griffith is always there to help players push ahead.

"She's always motivating us," Quinn said. "She's always giving us high fives and even if we're down, she's just always helping us up and it's just really nice having her. On the defensive end, she tries to keep us hyped. She's a great coach. I just love her."

Griffith says she has tried to keep her team's energy up throughout the region tournament.

"I've just pumped up the girls all week," Griffith said. "I've continued to preach to them the importance of the little things, like I did when I played. I'm just really excited to get to go back (to the state tournament)."

With the amount of talent on Russell's team, the spotlight has shined heavily on the players since the start of the season.

That's something that Griffith experienced during her playing career as well. She uses that experience to help mentor the players.

"I've been here before and I just tell them it's okay to be nervous," Griffith said. "It makes you human, but at the same time you have to play your game. You can't let the outside world dictate how you feel. I tell them, you are strong and capable basketball players and you know that you're good and you just have to go in knowing that. You have what it takes."

Russell sophomore Kennedy Darnell is grateful to have someone who's been in her shoes so recently be there to help guide her.

"Every game she always gives me a pep talk," Darnell said. "She always helps me so much, but it's just awesome to see somebody who's experienced it and worked so hard. She inspires her team. She's amazing."

Ultimately, Griffith's presence helps keep everyone calm and focused, according to Layne. It will go a long way in achieving more goals at Rupp Arena.

"She does a good job calming their nerves," Layne said. "We want them to enjoy the moment, embrace it. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and we're at the point now where we want our kids to have fun and compete and our goal though is to get to (the state title game) Saturday night."

Griffith's advice heading into state play falls in line with Layne's thoughts.

"It's just another basketball court," Griffith said of Rupp Arena. "They play on hundreds of basketball courts, especially those that play AAU. They're playing on different courts all the time. Yes, it's exciting, and it's special, but at the same time, it's just another basketball court."

Reach WILLIAM ADAMS at or (606) 326-2658. Follow @THExWilliam on Twitter (X).