Johnson County gets ready for 'Toppers, Vikes

By Matt Hill

   MOUNTAIN CITY--Local basketball experts figured during the preseason that the Johnson County boys basketball team would be good.
   We'll find out just how good this weekend in Johnson City.
   The Longhorns will be going up against traditional Class AAA powers Science Hill and Tennessee High at Roundball In The Hall Friday and Saturday night inside the Freedom Hall Civic Center.
   Johnson County opens the event Friday night at 8 p.m. against the Hilltoppers. The Longhorns will return to Johnson City Saturday night to face the Vikings at 6:30 p.m.
   The event will be a good measuring stick for an experienced Longhorn team that is considered a major contender for the Watauga Conference crown this season.
   Science Hill is coming off a Class AAA state runner-up appearance last season, and the program has even earned national recognition over the past decade.
   Tennessee High also has a strong tradition, and has been very good last couple of seasons. The Vikings have won the last two District 1-AAA championships, and have been to the state several times in recent years.
   A win or even a respectable showing against Science Hill this Friday would put Johnson County basketball on the map. It's rare that a Class AA school gets the opportunity to take on the Hilltoppers, so Johnson County head coach Austin Atwood relishes the opportunity.
   "The Science Hill game is probably the biggest game we've played in a long time," Atwood said. "We're looking at this game as more of a builder. Coach (Mike) Poe does an excellent job. We feel fortunate to be playing in this."
   The key to the game might be guard play. Science Hill traditionally has great guards, and nothing has changed.
   Point guard Jerome Odem and Shooting guard Nick Bradley are two of the better guards around. To beat Science Hill, you have to be able to have guards that can handle them and the pressure they provide.
   The Longhorns may have two that compare very well to them.
   Judd Shoun and Michael Lipford are both guards who are very capable. Both are juniors, with Shoun being a solid point guard that can also score and Lipford being possibly the best defender in the Watauga Conference.
   "Judd's as good as anybody," Atwood said. "For the most part Judd does a good job. I think he matches up pretty good with their guards.
   "Michael's just tough. He's a tough kid, and he likes the challenge."
   Atwood admitted that beating the famous Hilltopper press will be key to the Longhorns' success Friday night.
   "We have to get the ball past half-court," Atwood said.
   Longhorn forwards Matt Cornett and Tommy Short should play big roles this weekend. Cornett is coming off a 26-point outing against Sullivan East last time out, while Short is averaging 13 points-per-game so far this season and has hit five treys in Johnson County's first two games.
   Science Hill might be a little deeper than Johnson County. The Hilltoppers like to play a lot of people, and it's not uncommon to see them sub five in and five out.
   "Their second five can start for just about everybody else in the area except maybe for Dobyns-Bennett and Tennessee High," Atwood said. "If we're down we can't quit. We have to be prepared not to make any mistakes. When we make one or two turnovers, they're liable to get ten or twelve on us. We have to get the game in a half-court set, because they love to run."
   Atwood also says rebounding will be something the Longhorns have to do well in order to compete against Science Hill.
   "They're more athletic," Atwood said. "Hopefully, we can rebound. That's their strong point. They go to the boards like crazy."
   The Longhorns and the Hilltoppers have played a common opponent this season already. Johnson County lost to Greeneville 64-62 on opening night, while the 'Toppers defeated the Greene Devils by nine Saturday in the finals of Jefferson County's Thanksgiving Tournament.
   "Greeneville beat us 64-62 and we missed 14 free-throws," Atwood said. "Greeneville played in the finals of the Jeff County Tournament. We feel pretty good. Who knows."
   Johnson County figures to match-up very well against Tennessee High. The Longhorns return four starters, while 6-9, 290 pound center Drew Porter is the lone starter back for the Vikings.
   But Atwood doesn't consider his team the favorite in that game. He points out that Tennessee High head coach Dale Burns and the Viking coaching staff have more coaching experience than he does.
   "We're more experienced, but the underdog," Atwood said. "They're good. With the coaching staff being as good as they are, they're 10 points better. Burns brings a lot of experience over me. It's a privilege to coach against guys like that. But I want to beat them.
   Atwood and the Longhorns will get their chance to beat these two top programs this weekend. The second-year coach says he doesn't have to say much to get this team fired up.
   "There's nothing I need to say to motivate them," he said.