When Russell County coach Willie Feldhaus arrived in 2005, he wanted to change the culture around the boys’ basketball program.

The Lakers’ mental toughness was lacking, so Feldhaus found a battle cry – “Do you really think this is how Bowling Green and Warren Central does it?”

Now, the Lakers aren’t just aspiring to be like the Purples and Dragons – who have won 10 of the past 11 Region 4 championships – they are looking to compete with them.

Russell County has emerged as one of the region’s top teams at 13-3 after a loss at Southwestern on Tuesday. The Lakers have held the top spot in the Bowling Green Daily News top 10 boys’ poll for the past three weeks and have wins over Louisville Eastern and Apollo.

“We’ve played well up until this point,” Feldhaus said. “Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of things we can improve on, but I think we have a strong-minded group of kids. They feel like they can win, and that’s the biggest obstacle I think I had coming to Russell County eight years ago.”

Closer to Region 5 schools like Adair County than most of its Region 4 opponents, Russell County tends to fly under the radar. The Lakers have won at least 20 games in three of the past four years and have advanced to the Region 4 semifinals four of the past six years. Russell County turned heads with a 64-57 win over Warren Central in the opening round of the 2009 Region 4 Tournament and led eventual champion Bowling Green after three quarters before falling by 10 points in last year’s semifinals.

“We have to get beyond winning one game in the region tournament,” Feldhaus said. “Obviously, we have to get to the region tournament and we have to take care of business in our district. I know it’s one game at a time when you get (to the region tournament), but in a sense we’ve kind of plateaued at a level where we have to get beyond that first game.”

Russell County is led by senior guard Tyler Robertson, who is averaging 21.1 points a game. Robertson is one of the top guards in the region, perhaps the state, Feldhaus said.

“We’re not close enough to any media outlets where he probably gets the exposure he deserves,” Feldhaus said. “I’ve had some other nice players here, but Tyler is really special for us. Any time we need a go-to bucket, the ball is in his hands. He’s a very good passer and very unselfish. Earlier in his career I used to tell Tyler, ‘If you are not getting off 10 or 12 shots a game for us, you are being selfish.’ I think he understands that.”

Robertson and the Lakers impressed South Warren coach Derrick Clubb. The Spartans lost to Russell County 87-61 in Russell Springs on Dec. 20.

“Russell County is really good in the halfcourt,” Clubb said. “They may have the best player in the region in Robertson and they run their stuff well. They are a good basketball team. They don’t make mistakes. You have to beat them.”

Tuesday’s loss snapped a seven-game winning streak for Russell County. That streak included three wins in the South Central Bank Halton Classic at Allen County-Scottsville. The Lakers beat Apollo 65-50 in the finals. It was a big confidence boost for his team, Feldhaus said. Apollo has beaten some of the top teams in Region 4, including Warren Central, Warren East and Bowling Green twice.

The Lakers won’t play any of those Region 4 teams in the regular season. Russell County has tried to schedule Bowling Green and Warren Central, but it’s been hard to come up with dates that can work for boy/girl doubleheaders, Feldhaus said.

Russell County still has to improve defensively, but Feldhaus thinks his team is capable of being a factor if it can get to the Region 4 Tournament, he said.

“I feel like there are quite a few teams, probably more teams than usual, that feel like they have a chance to win the region this year,” Feldhaus said. “Ultimately it is all talk until someone can go in there and get it done, because it goes through Bowling Green and Warren Central.”

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