Apollo’s Payne leading another Sweet Sixteen run

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OWENSBORO, Ky. (WEHT) – In the 1990s, the road to the Kentucky Sweet Sixteen ran through Apollo.

During that decade, the E-gals won five third region championships, including three-straight titles from 1995-1997.

Apollo guard Natalie Powers was the backbone of that Apollo dynasty. She averaged 20 points per game in three consecutive trips to the state tournament from 1995 through 1997.

But that third region reign didn’t continue into the 21st century. It had been 24 years since the last time the E-gale won the third region, but they snapped that drought last week to punch their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

Who was roaming the sidelines for that title? None other than Natalie Powers Payne, who is now the head coach of the E-gals.

But that’s not the only tie. Apollo coach Willis McClure, who coached those championship teams in the 90s, is along for the ride as an assistant coach.

“The last time that we were able to go to the state tournament was in 1997, my senior year,” Payne said. “And I played for coach McClure. So, it’s a pretty neat scenario that we get to coach together now and lead this team.”

Although McClure has gone to the state tournament before, he admitted this trip will be particularly special.

“It’s good to get back to that level, and it’s really rewarding that we went together as me, the coach, and her, the player, for three state tournaments,” McClure said. “Now we’re going as co-coaches together, so that’s really something.”

Payne’s players understand just how significant this opportunity is.

“Obviously she’s been there,” said senior guard Kassidy Daugherty. “She’s done it. She knows what it takes to do it, and I think just doing it under her, somebody who had such a big platform here, and even Western [Kentucky University], it means a lot to us, too, to have her at the top of us.”

When the E-gals embark on the state tournament on Thursday, it will be the last ride for coach McClure, who will be retiring after coaching for 50 seasons.

While one Apollo legend is walking away, he said the program is in great hands with the other.

“I kind of selfishly wanted to go one more time, and kind of go out on top and leave the program in great shape. And it is in great shape. Natalie is as good a coach as she was a player, and she’s going to keep this program at this level. I just know she is.”

And if Payne’s past trips to the Sweet Sixteen tell us anything, she’s going to be just fine.

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