As the Apollo High School E-Gals prepare to play Henderson County on Thursday in their first KHSAA State Basketball Tournament since 1997, it’s worth taking a look back at the program’s golden era — the 1990s.

This was when the E-Gals ruled the roost.

The team of the decade in the 3rd Region, Apollo won five regional championships — 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997 — and were seemingly a threat to win them all.

“We had things going good during that period,” said Willis McClure, the team’s head coach in those days and a current associate head coach with Natalie Payne for this year’s Apollo team. “We had some great teams, we had some great players come through the system.”

Kim Baughn was a star on the ‘91 regional champions, Laurie Townsend was the star in ‘93 — and would earn Kentucky Miss Basketball honors a year later as a senior. Payne, then known as Natalie Powers, led the way from ‘95 through ‘97, on her way to becoming the school’s career scoring leader (2,497 points).

But any of these standouts would be quick to tell you that it took far more than their individual talents to make Apollo what it was back then. At the core of the program was teamwork. The E-Gals succeeded at a high level because the team’s role players performed their respective roles exceedingly well, complementing the stars sublimely.

Moreover, they were superbly coached by McClure and a quality staff that put a heavy emphasis on defense, rebounding, and scoring in transition — playing the game at their desired tempo; not allowing the opposition to dictate pace. These teams were always tough as nails, too, both physically and mentally. Prideful, as well.

It all added up to a championship culture that, for a while, was second to none in the 3rd Region.

“By the time I came into the program we thought we would win every game we played, no matter the opponent, no matter the place,” Payne recalled. “By that time, the culture of winning was so deeply embedded that everyone who stepped on the court played with a pride and confidence — it really was a special period.

“I grew up admiring Kim Baughn, I also admired Laurie and later became her teammate. Laurie’s senior year and my freshman year (1994), we didn’t win region (another substantial power, Ohio County, did) and I was upset because by then, we expected to win. After that, we won three straight regional championships.”

So, Townsend followed Baughn, Powers followed Townsend, and Jamie Truitt — yet another phenomenal scorer and playmaker — followed Powers.

Baughn later played at NCAA Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, while Townsend, Powers and Truitt all signed with Division I Western Kentucky, a national powerhouse and three-time NCAA Final Four participant in the 1980s and ‘90s.

By the time Powers departed Apollo, the program had reached the Sweet 16 in five of the previous seven seasons, and it was difficult to imagine that the E-Gals’ golden era wouldn’t continue for many years to come.

But it didn’t.

In 1998, Apollo was upset in shocking fashion by Muhlenberg North in the regional championship game, in 1999 the E-Gals were stunned by Owensboro Catholic in the first round of the 9th District Tournament, and in 2000 a fast-emerging Muhlenberg North program clipped the E-Gals in the regional semifinals.

After 25 years of service, McClure moved on from Apollo after the 1999-2000 season — ending a remarkable era for the program.

Few could have imagined, however, that it would take 21 more years before the E-Gals would again ascend to the top perch, but that’s the way it played out.

“Regional championships are hard to win,” noted McClure, who also led Apollo to the 1980 title over the late, great G.G. Talbott and his Owensboro Lady Devils, a dominant force in the region after the KHSAA re-sanctioned the sport in 1974-75. “You can never take them for granted because there’s no guarantee you’re ever going to win another one.”

After 1997, Apollo discovered this over the next quarter-century, before finally breaking through this season. It’s been a long time coming and there are hopes in the E-Gals camp, of course, that this will be the beginning of another high-flying era.

Only time will tell.

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