'Landers on verge of bigger, better things

By Matt Hill

   The economy may be down right now, but the stock of the Cloudland Highlander boys basketball team has risen greatly in the last couple of years.
   The Highlanders finished a very respectable 16-16 last season, and were just one game away from making the sub-state. And with most of the team returning, Cloudland looks ready to take the next step.
   "I hope we can do pretty well this year," sophomore point guard Mark Byrd said. "Last year we went .500, and it was a pretty good accomplishment for us. Maybe this year we can change things around a little bit."
   Cloudland will have a new head coach this season. Former Hampton basketball standout Ned Smith has taken over for the very successful Randy Birchfield. Smith assisted Birchfield last season, and was also the junior varsity head coach.
   Everything has been just fine for Smith so far.
   "The transition has been good," Smith said. "The kids have accepted it. The kids that haven't been in football have worked very hard during the preseason.
   "The kids listen well, and practice hard. We still have the same system, the only thing we're going to differently is pick up the tempo a little bit."
   If the 'Landers do start slow, it probably won't be a big deal. At press time, the Cloudland football team was still vying for a state title.
   That means several of the football players who play basketball will get a late start to the hoops season.
   Once football is out of Cloudland's system, the Highlanders should be very deep. Smith says that 11 players will play regularly in every game.
   This amount of depth could make Cloudland dangerous in 2001-2002.
   "I think the depth is going to help us during the long season," Smith said. "You always have kids getting hurt and sick."
   With the depth and six seniors returning, Smith shares Byrd's high expectations.
   "We want to be in the top of the conference this year," Smith said.
   All the starting slots aren't set in stone, but Byrd is slated to be the top point guard for the 'Landers.
   Everybody pretty much knows about the athletic abilities of this sophomore. Already one of Northeast Tennessee's top football players, Byrd is ready to make a name for himself on the basketball court.
   Byrd really became a top-notch player at the end of last year, and that should continue into this season.
   "I played better in the tournaments last year," Byrd said. "I was a little hurt from football, and I guess when I got healed up I played a little bit better."
   Byrd should become a team leader on the basketball court in 2001-2002.
   "I look to take over the leadership role," Byrd said.
   The go-to-players at the wing positions will be seniors Caleb Denton, Kevin Jones and Kyle Jones.
   "I think they're going to be coming along this year, and shooting the ball real well," Smith said.
   Cloudland is very strong in the post, and leading the pack is Ricky Whitehead and Brandon Odom. They both bring a very physical presence down low.
   "Ricky and Brandon do bring a lot of experience back to the team," Smith said. "Ricky crashes the boards every time and plays hard. Odom has some good feet, and is a good post player."
   Odom and Whitehead are both seniors, and both know how to win. Odom is a member of the football team, so he's used to having success.
   Odom is also used to being a leader, and that's something he believes all the seniors will show this season.
   "I think we'll have more leadership this year," Odom said.
   The bench is very strong as sophomore Dakota Benfield will fill in for Byrd when he needs a rest. Smith is also high on juniors Cole Gouge and Josh Johnson.
   "They're good shooters," Smith said about Gouge and Johnson.
   Sophomores Robby Tolley and Craig Cooke should also play a lot for Cloudland this season.
   Senior Bryan Cooke, sophomore Zach Cooke and sophomore Aaron Stocton round out the Highlander roster.
   The Highlanders seem to be for real on paper. Unaka and University High will be tough competition in the Watauga Valley, but Odom believes it could be a special season in the high country.
   "I believe we really have the talent, and the leadership this year to maybe win the conference," Odom said.