No clear-cut favorites for junior high girls hoops

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com

   This year's girls' middle school basketball season promises to be a struggle for teams all across the board. With the echoing sentiment of several coaches suggesting a schedule splattered with equally skillful teams, the question of which teams will end up on top remains doubtful.
   The T.A. Dugger Jr. Lady Cyclones should have a promising season, since more than half of Coach Angie Barker's 21-girl team are eighth-graders, and all but one have returned from last year. One seventh-grader will be playing some on varsity in addition to playing four quarters on the JV team.
   One of TAD's strong points this year will be speed, a factor that Coach Barker hopes will make up for the team's lack of height compared to last year.
   "I'd like for it to play out as well as it did last year," said the coach of her second year coaching the Jr. Cyclones. "All in all, we'll have a good season."
   Happy Valley has the largest, and perhaps one of the most experienced teams this season. With 20 returning players on a 24-girl team, and several with at least three years of varsity experience, Coach Dana Hill thinks his team will be a "force to contend with" by tournament time.
   "With that many coming back, your expectations are high. We're shooting for the stars, so to speak," he said.
   Hill knows he faces a tough conference, however, and doesn't pretend that they will be undefeated by any means.
   "Their skills can definitely be improving, but I'm pleased with their work ethic so far. If we continue to improve, the sky is the limit."
   Another possible threat to the conference will be the Jr. Lady Bulldogs of Hampton. The intimidating team of 22 is hoping for the best this season.
   "This is a good group of girls to work with," said Coach Ronnie Street. "They work hard, but need to improve their shooting percentage. It should be an interesting season."
   Johnson County should be able to wreak a reasonable amount of havoc this season. With 20 players, Coach Steve Nave has two starters returning from last year.
   "This is the best team I've had in the last three years," Nave said.
   The varsity team includes all 10 of the eighth-grade girls, and three seventh-grade players. Coach Nave hopes to work on individual skills to fine-tune his team as the season progresses.
   The coach is very pleased with the Jr. Longhorn basketball program. "I have high hopes for this team," Nave said. "We have a good seventh-grade coach. They (the players) know what's going on when they get to my team."
   Cloudland wraps up the list of larger teams, with 19 players. Coach Randy Birchfield attributes his team's progress so far to the support staff that has helped develop the girls' skills.
   He is pleased with all 13 of his eighth-grade players, and expects several of the seventh-graders to help make a difference on the court during the season. He has four eighth-graders playing on both varsity and junior varsity teams.
   "Our kids have come a long way," Birchfield said. "I'll be very surprised to see an undefeated team win the conference. It will be a dog fight from top to bottom."
   Unaka coach Don Parkey expects to see a rough season start that will gradually improve as the girls gain experience. After losing almost all of their starters to high school teams, the 15-girl Unaka crew is prepared to wait to see how competitive they will prove to be.
   "We've got a ways to go where we will get up and be on a competitive level. Fundamentally, we're not where we should be," Parkey said. "Right now we're looking for someone to take charge and be what coaches call the go-to person."
   Parkey is grateful that the teams appear to be fairly equal in talent as of now. "It's pretty even," he said. "Any one team is capable of beating anyone on a given night."
   With only five returners and seventeen players, Central Elementary will face a tough schedule. First-year coach Letha Carr plans to take advantage of the rebuilding year to develop her players to be fiercely competitive in the future, during the end of the season and the following years.
   "We have a lot of speed, but a lot of inexperience," Carr said. There's always room for improvement. It will be a tough season, definitely, but I expect the girls to improve."
   Hunter School is another team that faces a year of rebuilding. Of the 15 players, Coach Tammy Taylor has two girls that got playing time last year when the team was tied for first place in the Little Watauga Conference, losing the last game in the tournament by only a couple points.
   Taylor expects those girls to carry the talent over into their varsity year, and says that she also has several of the younger players that are appear to be stepping up.
   "I think it will be tough, but the conference is pretty even," she said. "It's give and take this year. I don't think anyone in the conference will dominate."
   Little Milligan has the largest team they've had in four years, with 14 players. Coach David Cable has an extremely young team this year, after losing all five of his starters from last year.
   "We're young, so it will be a couple games before we get the nerves out," Cable said. The coach echoed the repeated opinion of the equality of the teams.
   "Maybe by the end of the year, we'll have enough experience to compete well," Cable said.
   The Jr. Lady Tigers expect a better season than last year. Coach Kristie McAninch said the Keenburg team of 11 improved dramatically over the summer and in practice.
   With seven returning players, she hopes the team will be able to play on a competitive level. "I think we'll be able to compete with most of them," McAninch said. "They're about all the same level - nobody really stands out."
   Range School will not have a girls Jr. High basketball team this year.