Sizing up junior high roundball season for boys

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   As football finally winds down, the basketball season is cranking up with some area junior high teams expecting to shine at the end.
   To start off, the T.A. Dugger Jr. Cyclones finished a strong third last year, and they look to improve on that mark this season.
   It will be a tough schedule that the Cyclones will have to endure as they have added Greeneville to a list that includes always conference rivals Science Hill and Sevier.
   The strength of T.A. Dugger will be having several players who are knowledgeable on what it takes to win.
   "We have a bunch of kids that just know the game of basketball, and we getting a late start, but I think we'll really step it up midway through the season," said T.A. Dugger coach James Jacobs.
   In the Little Watauga Conference Happy Valley has been the team among big schools for the past two seasons.
   The Jr. Warriors lost a lot of talent last season and their chances to repeat are not as good as previous years.
   A lack of inexperience could haunt Happy Valley, but when facing a team that has won back-to back-titles, it not wise to over look their capabilities out on the court.
   "We're younger than we've ever been, and our main goal is just learn how to be competitive, so we have a chance in being there at the end," said Happy Valley coach Rik Anderson.
   A team that looks to be a threat to the conference title this season is Hampton.
   The Bulldogs were young last year and took a thumping to start the season by going winless in their first nine games.
   A turnaround at that point saw Hampton roll off seven victories in its last nine games, and most of their crew is back this season.
   "We're optimistic this season. We're deep with good athletes who are experienced, and the key to our success is being able to wear teams down," said Hampton coach Leon Tolley.
   Another team looking to make a showing among the big schools is Cloudland.
   The Jr. 'Landers were tough at the end of the season, just coming up short of the in the district and regional championships to Happy Valley.
   A group that has some size will be expected to bang the boards and defense is always a key to one's success.
   "We'll have to go out and play hard every game, be strong on the boards, and play excellent defense, for there's some nights the offense struggles," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford.
   Hunter is a team that has returning talent, but plays called from the sidelines will be under a new coach.
   The Tiger have a good core of eighth-graders, but a couple of key injuries to start the year might hinder their play in the early going.
   Expect for Hunter to give teams a run for their money, as they have time to heal and learn the new system of their first-year coach Chris Collins.
   "We look to be in good shape by January and hopefully we'll be healthy by then, but in order for us to compete for the conference we must be to play together," said Collins.
   Last but definitely not least among the big schools is Johnson County.
   The Longhorns look to be in the top two or three by year's end, as they'll use their quickness and defense in their attempt to topple their opponents.
   A talented group among several on their unit, the Longhorns will have to do a good job of rebounding in order to make up for lack of size underneath.
   "Our strength is we have a lot of speed and our defense is good, but with our size we'll have to hit the boards if we want to have success," said Johnson County coach Chris Mullins.
   In the battle between the small schools last season, it was Unaka which dominated throughout, but Central made its presence felt in the district championship.
   The Rangers look to be the team beat once again, but it will be hard to match last season's effort of just one loss on the year.
   A talented bunch has graduated, and the role of the new guys to step in and take over will be expected to carry on the winning ways.
   It won't be as easy for the Rangers to repeat, but you can count on they'll be in the show at the end.
   "We lost a lot from last year, and the kids stepping in will have to work hard, so if we'll come out and have strong practices, I think we'll be competing for the title once again," said Unaka coach Mark Revis.
   Central was the only team to knock off the Rangers last season, and the Comets will be looking to do the same this year.
   A big loss in one of their key starters, who made the transfer to Virginia, has hampered the Comets' spirits.
   It will definitely not hurt their efforts for contending for the championship, but it won't be easy to replace the talent of Josh Moore's play out on the court.
   The Comets will have size inside, but their front court play needs some polishing before the season comes to an end.
   "We're pretty strong, about like we were last year, and our defense is strong. We look for our big men to score, but our guards up front needs to improve," said Central coach Lamont Barnett.
   Keenburg is a team that has some talent, but it will be a question of how good they gel and come together.
   The Tigers finished 9-8 at the end of last year, and look to improve with a good group of ball handlers.
   It'll be tough for Keenburg to dethrone both Unaka and Central, but it's certainly not impossible.
   "We have a lot of players that handle the ball good and are able to push it down the court, but we need some players to step up down low. That's been our strength in the past," said Keenburg coach Scott Heaton.
   Range is usually not a team mentioned when who's going to win the conference.
   A young team last season that went undefeated has got the Rebels' hopes of controlling the south.
   It's questionable of whether or not Range can come away with the small conference title, but one thing's for sure -- they'll be much improved.
   The other small school left to mention is Little Milligan, which is living up to its name with a lack of size.
   A Buffalo team that doesn't have many eighth graders will be faced with an uphill struggle all season long.
   They might not be in the championship game at the end, but they expect to improve with their speed out on the floor and ability to shoot outside.