With three transfers and two sophomores who saw only limited action last season among their top six players, the Clay County Tigers were a work in progress when the 2013-2014 season began.
The Tigers were one of several teams who took turns as the regional favorite during the course of the season. Corbin, Knox Central and Jackson County also looked like favorites at different points of the season. Jackson County defeated Clay County late in the regular season at McKee and had a six-point lead in the final minute of the 49th District Tournament before Clay rallied for a one-point win.
Once the regional tournament began the following week in Corbin, Clay could not be stopped, rolling past Middlesboro, Williamsburg and Corbin to capture its second straight championship. Led by guard Tyler McDaniel, the only returning starter from a year ago, the Tigers played their best in the postseason.
A trio of sophomores, Blake Smith, Wes Wolfe and Trey Farmer, were impressive in the postseason. Senior center Jake Allen and sixth man Ryan House, both North Laurel transfers, also played important roles.
Knox Central and Jackson County ended the season in disappointing fashion, each suffering first-round exits in the regional tournament. Corbin overcame a late-season slump, then edged Whitley County and Williamsburg in the 50th District Tournament, before catching fire in the regional with wins over Jackson County and Bell County before falling to Clay County in the finals.
The following is my annual look back at the best of the season just past and a look ahead to what I think will happen next winter.
G — Jordan Fox, Jackson County
G — Tyler McDaniel, Clay County
G — Zac Baxter, South Laurel
F — Isaiah Collier, Jackson County
C — Chad Marsee, Knox Central
G — Matthew Barger, Knox Central
G — Tyler Potter, Bell County
G — Donnie Foister, Middlesboro
F — Samuel Robinson, Oneida Baptist
F — Jake Allen, Clay County
G — Peyton Broughton, North Laurel
G — Blake Smith, Clay County
G — Kevin Goins, Corbin
F — Trey Farmer, Clay County
F — Zach Caldwell, Harlan County
G — Corey Shelton, Williamsburg
G — James Sasko, Whitley County
F — Austin Poindexter, Middlesboro
F — Jake Patterson, Bell County
C — Jason Mills, Barbourville
Jason McDaniel, Clay County
Zac Baxter, South Laurel
Isaiah Collier, Jackson County
Matthew Barger, Knox Central
James Sasko, Whitley County
Chad Marsee, Knox Central
Blake Smith, Clay County
Trey Farmer, Clay County
Andrew Griffith, Williamsburg
Luke Woods, Whitley County
Peyton Broughton, North Laurel
Cameron Carmical, Harlan County
Treyce Spurlock, Harlan County
Bryson Asher, North Laurel
Jared Grubb, South Laurel
Coach of the year:
Tony Pietrowski, Corbin
Predictions for 2014-2015
(Players are listed by their grades in 2015)
1. Knox Central — Another regional tournament meltdown takes away much of what the Panthers accomplished during the regular season, when they lost only one game against a regional opponent, but the fact remains that five starters are scheduled to return and Knox Central should be the favorite. The Panthers will be loaded with experience as Matthew Barger, Jeffrey Adams, Dustin Hensley and Nathan Cole return for their senior seasons in a four-guard lineup. Knox Central also features perhaps the region’s best returning big man in 6-foot-5 junior center Chad Marsee.
Depth wasn’t a strength for the Panthers in 2014, with no other player on the roster averaging more than 1.5 points per game. Junior forward Blaine Wyatt and sophomore guards Jacob Nelson and Tanner Webb could help KC improve in that area next season.
2. Clay County — After two straight regional titles, the Tigers will receive quite a few No. 1 votes, especially considering how well they played late last season.
The biggest question surrounding Clay will be the status of star guard Tyler McDaniel, who has another year of eligibility left but has already signed to play golf for the University of Kentucky and is listed by UK as a freshman for the 2014-2015 season. McDaniel is reportedly planning to graduate a year early.
Clay will lose 6-8 center Jake Allen to graduation, which should be enough to drop the Tigers to second even if McDaniel stays, but Knox Central’s postseason troubles are well documented and Clay will be solid with three starters returning for their junior seasons — guard Blake Smith and forwards Wes Wolfe and Trey Farmer. Senior Ryan House, likely the region’s top sixth man last season, will move into the lineup at a wing.
Sophomore guards Trevor Sams and Will Sexton are the leading candidates to round out the lineup.
3. Corbin — When they lost five straight at midseason, the Redhounds didn’t look like a team that would make it all the way to the regional finals, but Corbin and coach Tony Pietrowski are accustomed to success and made an impressive postseason run that included wins over Whitley County, Williamsburg, Jackson County and Bell County.
Even though four players graduate, including three starters, the Hounds will remain a contender. Andrew Taylor, a starter as an eighth grader, made an impressive high school debut and should continue to improve. Sophomore Zach Maguet also returns to the backcourt, which should also feature Kenny Hopper and Trevor Browning, a pair of 6-0 seniors who played big roles in Corbin’s tourney success. Connor Hopkins, a 6-4 junior, was also solid in the regional and should give the Hounds more size in the post next year.
4. Whitley County — No one exceeded expectations more than the Colonels, who improved from 8-22 to 17-13 despite losing their two most experienced players in the opening month.
With no established stars coming into the year, the Colonels won with hustle and heart . Whitley won’t be such a secret next season with players several coming off good seasons, including senior forwards James Sasko and Lev Barton and sophomore guard Luke Woods. Junior guard Casey Crisologo and freshman guard Cory Johnson were also key contributors.
5. Harlan County — After an up-and-down 2014 season, the Black Bears should be much more consistent in 2015 with only one player graduating from last year’s rebuilding team that lost five players to graduation following a regional runner-up finish.
Zach Caldwell, a 6-3 senior, gives the Bears perhaps the strongest post player in the region. He will likely be joined inside by 6-2 senior Fred Massey, a starter last season before leaving the team midway through the year.
With Cody Bumgardner returning for his senior season at the point and sophomores Cameron Carmical and Treyce Spurlock developing into stars on the wings, the backcourt should be much more consistent next season, especially with senior Trey Sanders providing instant offense off the bench.
Junior Cody Brewer and sophomores David Turner and Jared Sizemore were leaders on another strong HCHS junior varsity team and should play bigger roles next season on the varsity. Several talented freshmen could also work their way on to the varsity if they continue to progress.
6. Williamsburg — The injury of star guard Skylar Griffith, one of four seniors expected to start in 2015, caused Williamsburg to get off to a slow start last season following lofty preseason expectations. When Griffith returned, the Jackets took off, upsetting South Laurel in the 50th District Tournament and shocking Knox Central in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament.
Corey Shelton, the Jackets’ leading scorer last year, and point guard Chase Lowrie also return to the backcourt for their senior seasons. Skylar’s brother, Andrew, a 6-5 junior, is back at center with the potential to be one of the region’s elite players eventually. Seniors Michael Rose and Eric Poore and 6-5 junior Ryan Haus will also vie for playing time
7. South Laurel — Five seniors are gone from a team that was the first at South Laurel not to make it to the regional since joining the 13th Region in 2006. The Cardinals bring back two talented players to rebuild around, including 6-4 senior guard Zac Baxter, who may be the region’s best player next season. Jared Grubb, a 5-10 guard, was one of the region’s top freshmen last season and will run the South Laurel offense the next three years.
Key reserves expected to fill out the lineup are 6-1 senior forward Vince Halcomb, 6-3 junior center Coty Arnold and 5-9 junior guard Braden Miller.
8. North Laurel — Led by guard Peyton Broughton and 6-7 center Bryson Asher, the Jaguars’ talented freshman class received quite a bit of recognition around the region last season, but like with most teams, inconsistency was a problem.
North loses three guards to graduation but should quickly rebuild around the strong group of underclassmen. Bayley Rice, a 6-8 freshman center who transferred from Corbin, will provide even more size for what should be the region’s tallest team. Kyle Jeffers, a 6-6 junior, and Weston Griebel, a 6-0 sophomore, are also in the mix for starting jobs in 2015.
9. Jackson County — A loss to Corbin in the first round of the regional ended what probably was the best shot Jackson County has ever had to win a regional title. Star guard Jordan Fox is headed to Army and leaves a huge hole in the Generals’ lineup. Guard Seth Bingham and center Will Neeley will also graduate, which means only three players are back who actually played in a regional tournament game.
Senior forward Isaiah Collier, at 6-4 with the ability to play outside, could be one of the region’s top players, but whether he hangs around is a question mark since he has already played for North Laurel and Southwestern.
Senior guards Jacob Hammons and Zach Lawson are also back after playing complementary roles to Fox last season in the backcourt. Senior Jacob Hays could also move into the starting lineup.
No other player on the Jackson roster is taller than 6-1, which means size and depth are both concerns.
10. Bell County — Losing five seniors could mean a rebuilding season for Lewis Morris’ Bobcats, but Bell always remains competitive and 2015 should be no different with several players moving up from a good junior varsity team to join junior holdovers Chase Woolum, a 5-10 guard, and Zach Partin, a 6-3 center. Jacob Hunley, a 6-3 junior, could join Partin inside.
Adam Jones and Donovan Napier, the only two juniors on the roster last season, will also compete for starting jobs. Several good sophomores could also move up, including Vic Morris, Cody Carnes, Ethan Gambrel and Trent Lefevers.
Best of the rest
Harlan — The Dragons hope to build on last year’s strong start with everyone returning in the backcourt, including sophomore Noah Busroe and juniors Drew Parks and Caleb Hogue. Jordan Dupar, a 6-5 senior who was a junior varsity standout last season, will likely take over at center following the graduation of Aaron Simpson, Leighton Piper and Manny Davis. Tyler Miller, a talented 6-5 senior, will round out the lineup if he returns after leaving the team late in the season.
Barbourville — Six seniors are gone, but you can never count on Dinky Phipps and the Tigers. Junior Brentley Perry and sophomore Wade Liford gained valuable experience last season and will take on leadership roles next year. Brandon Gray, a senior guard who missed last season, could also provide a boost. Seniors Collin Grubb and Trevor Mills will also play key roles.
Pineville — Senior guards Cody Collett and Isaac Longworth will have to shake off the inconsistency of a season ago if the Lions are to contend in the All “A” Classic this year, especially following the graduation of three starters inside. Scotty Hoskins, a 6-5 senior who returned last season after missing extensive time with an injury, could provide an inside presence. Sophomores Tucker Woolum and Will Adams could round out the lineup.
Oneida Baptist — David Robinson did a tremendous job in his first season back at OBI, but matching last year’s success will be tough with star guard Sam Robinson, the coach’s son, graduating. Dekia Kiawa, an athletic 6-5 senior, will have to carry the Mountaineers next season. Junior guard Daniel Decker is the only other returning starter. Junior forward Alex Quarshie, at 6-1, and senior center A.J. Shackleford, at 6-5, should move up after seeing significant action off the bench.
Middlesboro — Senior guard Brandon Hale and senior forward Major Edwards are the only players with significant varsity experience returning for the Jackets. Coach Russell Thompson, who has led Middlesboro to three straight 13th Region tournaments, will probably choose his remaining starters from a big junior class that includes Matthew Mike, Cody Smith, Jarred Gullett, Devin Lefevers and Josh Buttery.
Lynn Camp — The Wildcats showed signs of improvement last season under first-year coach Eric Swords and could move up the ladder this year behind senior guard Skylar McFarland. Senior Austin Withrow and sophomore Bruce Hopkins also return to the backcourt while sophomores Austin Allen, at 6-5, and Antonio Tepesano, at 6-3, will likely comprise the frontcourt.
Red Bird — With four seniors graduating, moving out of the region cellar won’t be easy. Junior forward Thomas Wilder is the only starter coming back.