The Clay County Tigers and South Laurel Cardinals are not unfamiliar with success. Both have won state championships in the last 30 years and both have multiples regional titles to their credit.
Both are expected to be at the top of the 13th Region race in 2016, even though each team will have much different strengths. Clay County features the standout senior guard tandem of Blake Smith and Trey Farmer, while South Laurel counters with the senior twin towers of Caleb Taylor and Andrew Griffith.
Clay County was the coaches’ pick in the annual Cats Pause/Harlan Daily Enterprise preseason poll with 66 points on eight of 15 first-place votes. South Laurel was only two points behind with seven first-place votes. North Laurel was a solid third with 43 points, followed by Barbourville with 35 points, Harlan County with 15 points and Corbin with 12 points. Whitley County, Knox Central, Bell County and Lynn Camp rounded out the top 10.
The following is our annual look at each 13th Region team:
CLAY COUNTY (24-7)
Unlike the previous three seasons, the Clay County Tigers weren’t playing their best basketball in March last year and were denied a third straight 13th Region title with a loss to Williamsburg in the finals. The Tigers barely survived in the semifinals against Knox Central and didn’t appear to be as strong as they were earlier in the year.
“Last year was the first year in a long time we weren’t playing our best in the region. We all weren’t on the same page, and we were battling a lot of injuries,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said. “Hopefully, this year with a lot of seniors who have played at Rupp Arena, they’ll be a little extra hungry to try to get back.”
No one can match the Tigers’ big-game experience with seniors Blake Smith (19.6 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game), Trey Farmer (18.0, 6.3) and Wes Wolfe (11.6, 5.6) all back for their third season together in the starting lineup. Will Sexton (9.0), a 6-3 junior, is a two-year starter at wing.
“Farmer has lost weight, and Blake Smith has gotten stronger,” Marcum said. “Our football guys are coming in stronger and better shape. We’re in good shape physically.”
The only spot that remains up for grabs is at center where Marcum will likely alternate junior Logan Gabbard (2.0, 2.7) and sophomore Tyler Gray, both 6-6. Coty Arnold, a 6-3 senior, will provide depth, along with 6-5 senior Jacob Vaughn and 6-1 senior Tyler Lyttle. Clay will have six seniors in its nine-man rotation.
“Our defense and rebounding are the keys,” Marcum said. “Our big question mark is defense. Once we get tired, are we willing to dig a little deeper and lock a man down? If we’re a good defensive team and rebound the ball well, I think we’ll be very competitive.”
NORTH LAUREL (10-15)
Expectations were a little too higher for the Jaguars last year as their youth and a tough schedule kept them from establishing any inconsistency and led to a semifinal exit at the hands of Jackson County in the 49th District Tournament.
“We should be better. We have so many guys back, and they are another year older,” North Laurel coach Brad Sizemore said. “A lot of them have gotten bigger and stronger over the offseason. Hopefully, some of that varsity experience from last year will help us get over the hump in some of those close games we lost last year. We’re really excited.”
WIth 6-5 junior guard Peyton Broughton (25.7, 4.4) returning, North Laurel is among the regional favorites this season. The Jaguars feature one of the region’s biggest teams with a lineup that could also include 6-7 junior forward Bryson Asher (11.3, 5.9) and 6-6 senior guard Kyle Jeffers (8.0, 4.6).
Jaret Lipps, a 6-2 senior guard who transferred from West Virginia, should provide another perimeter threat. Adam Sizemore, a 5-8 freshman, is a candidate at guard, along with 6-0 senior Trae Henson (2.0) and 5-11 sophomore Brian Gray. James Nicely, a 6-3 junior, is competing for a starting job at forward.
“I think defensive rebounding is going to be a key, because we probably won’t be as big in spots as we were last year,” Sizemore said. “But I think we will be able to press a lot better. We have some guys who can get up and down the floor. Hopefully, we’ll be able to spread people out and hit some shots.”
ONEIDA BAPTIST (13-16)
Matching the improvement from last season could be difficult for the Mountaineers, who lost four starters, but coach David Robinson expects another late run with a roster that includes 13 seniors.
“It could be kind of tough in December,” said Robinson. “Twelve of our 13 guys played soccer, so we’re just getting started. I think we’ll be really competitive by the end of the year.”
Robinson can rebuild around one of the region’ most athletic players in 6-2 senior Dejour Frazier (21.3, 6.6), who likely to move from a wing to the point.
Simon Robinson (4.8) and Demi Olawaye, both 6-foot seniors, will likely play wings, with 6-1 seniors Noble Zeka and Alex Assa starting inside. Grant Zeka, a 6-2 senior, will also see extensive action, along with 5-10 senior guard Trey Stout and 5-10 sophomore guard Hera Decaines and 5-10 junior Jeremiah Taiwo.
“We don’t have the size we had last year, but we should be able to press and run, which is the way I like to play. We have some speed and athleticism,” Robinson said. “I really like this team. It’s a good group of kids.”
JACKSON COUNTY (16-15)
After two seasons of heavy graduation losses, you might expect Jackson County coach Greg Parrett to be more than a little concerned as his Generals prepare to open the season.
Parrett, however, has been rejuvenated by the attitude his team is showing in the preseason.
“I’m very pleased with this young team, probably It’s the most enjoyment I’ve had since I’ve been on the boys side of basketball,” Parrott said. “We just need each player to understand and develop into their role.”
Tanner Harris, (7.1, 6.0), a 6-1 sophomore forward, is the only returning starter for the Generals, but the inside should be a strength for Jackson with 6-5 center Andrew Hillard back with the team this season. Hillard will share time with 6-4 sophomore Chase Gilbert and 6-3 junior Matt Walker, a transfer from Bryan Station.
Lucas Moore (2.3), a junior, and Drew Akemon, a sophomore, will share time at point guard. Hunter Carroll (2.2), a 6-3 junior, and Dylan Rose, a 6-4 sophomore, will split time with Akemon on the wings.
While the Generals lack experience of the past couple of years, Parrett expects to see continued improvement.
“A strength on this team is eagerness to work hard and give a great effort ever day,” he said.
RED BIRD (3-23)
After undergoing what he described as a “brutal” first season with the Cardinals, Red Bird coach Charles David Collett feels a lot better about his team going into his second season.
“We had some turmoil last year, but things are coming together now,” Collett said. “They are understanding what it takes to be competitive and win. Last year was brutal. They are working hard in practice.”
Junior guard Steven Leath (6.2, 2.1) and 6-3 senior forward Thomas Wilder (5.9, 5.6) are returning starters for the Cardinals, who also welcome back 6-4 junior guard Ethan Smith (2.7, 4.7) and 6-1 junior guard Jake Jackson (4.2, 4.9). Jonathan Kabongo a 5-9 junior from the Congo who sat out last year, is the early favorite to take over at point guard.
Two other junior guards from the Congo, 6-1 Max Kitoko and 5-11 Junior Kitoko, give Asher a few more options than he had a year ago. Sophomore forward Austin Jones and junior guard Seth Carroll will also see action.
“We have more quickness this year and should be able to play a little bit more aggressive,” he said. “Last year we couldn’t, due to lack of knowledge and depth and talent. I think you’ll see a big difference by January or February.”
SOUTH LAUREL (15-11)
Despite two straight first-round exits in the always tough 50th District Tournament, the Cardinals find themselves as one of the 13th Region favorites with a balanced lineup that features four returning starters and a transfer who helped lead Williamsburg to last year’s regional championship.
“Everyone has an ultimate goal, which is to win state,” said South Laurel coach Jeff Davis. “Our focus right now is to get to the district championship game.”
South will feature the region’s most potent 1-2 combination inside with 6-7 senior center Caleb Taylor (17.2) joined by 6-5 senior forward Andrew Grittith (13.2, 6.6).
The Cardinals will also be solid in the backcourt, led by junior Jared Grubb (19.5), who will again team with senior Braden Miller (6.0) and sophomore Ryan Anders (6.6).
While no one questions the talent of their starting five, an improved bench is a must if the Cardinals are to make a run in the regional tournament. Juniors Blake Phelps and Feltner, senior Kayne Hensley and sophomore Dylan Wagner are expected to lead the Cardinals’ improved bench.
“You can’t win just playing five guys,” Davis said. “We’ve got to find four or five guys we can count on to give us 10 minutes or 30 seconds or whatever we need.”
No team in the region has been as consistent as the Redhounds in Tony Pietrowski’s 15 years at the helm, and Corbin remains in the mix in both the district and region despite losing two starters to graduation and 6-4 senior center Connor Hopkins (7.4, 3.5) to a season-ending knee injury.
“Losing Hopkins was a blow,” Pietrowski said. “We’ll have to make some adjustments as a coaching staff to try to deal with some of the size we’ll see from teams in our district and region.”
Corbin will be led by one of the region’s top players in 6-2 sophomore Andrew Taylor (20.8, 6.4), a three-year starter who will lead a strong backcourt that also features junior Zach Maguet (7.5) and 6-2 freshman Chase Sanders, a transfer from South Laurel. Sam Taylor (6.2, 3.4), a 6-2 junior, will start inside after serving as the Redhounds’ top reserve last year. Tanner Barnes and A.J. Moore (2.0, 2.1), both juniors, are the leading candidates to round out the lineup at forward.
“I like our talent level, but we will have to understand the importance of the little things this season in order to be successful. We will face teams that have more size in every position and will have to figure out ways to combat that size,” Pietrowski said. “We have some kids that have never been in the positions we will play them at this year, but for us to be the best team we can be they will need to thrive in their new roles. I anticipate to look different style wise to people this year, but our core values will still lead our team — hard work, attention to detail, and putting the team first.
WHITLEY COUNTY (19-8)
One win away from 20 victories for the season and riding a four-game winning streak, the Colonels were playing like one of the 13th Regon’s best teams when last February’s major winter storm hit and wiped out the last two weeks of the season. Whitley never reached the 20-win plateau with several games canceled, followed by a first-round loss to Corbin in the 50th District Tournament.
The Colonels hope to avoid the late-season slump this year with one of the region’s deepest lineups. The Colonels had four averaging double figures in points last season, but two of those, James Sasko (14.6) and Levi Barton (10.0), were lost to graduation. Coach Jerry Overbay is hoping the addition of 6-foot-8 sophomore center Bayley Rice, a transfer from North Laurel, will help offset those losses and give the Colonels an inside threat they lacked last year.
“Rice will give us a little more balanced than we had last year with an inside-outside game,” Overbay said. “We should be able to get out and pressure people and play in halfcourt sets also.”
Whitley will be solid at guard with senior Luke Woods (10.2) returning at the point and senior Casey Crisologo (8.3) and sophomore Corey Johnson (10.3) back on the wings.
There are several candidates to round out the lineup, led by 6-4 junior Tyler Downs, 6-3 senior Jon Sasko (2.1) and 5-10 junior Josh Richardson (3.0).
“We relied so much on pressuring people last year and getting easy buckets off turnovers, so we hope to improve our scoring in the halfcourt,” Overbay said. “We’ve had some kids grow this summer, and they got some minutes this summer in varsity ball.”
No matter how much they improve, the Colonels know getting out of the 50th District is never easy.
“Getting out of our district is a tall task with South Laurel and Corbin,” Overbay said. “We just want to keep working and improving.”
One year after he reached his dream of a 13th Region Tournament title and a trip to Rupp Arena for the Jackets’ first state tournament appearance in almost 50 years, Williamsburg coach Patrick Robinson must start over with the top six scorers from last season gone.
“The starting over process is always exciting to see what the kids can do,” said Robinson, who begins his 10th year in charge of the program. “We’ll be really young, so I’m looking forward to the challenge. There are no expectations, but we have some really good young talent coming in. We have some good eighth-graders, some good freshmen and some good sophomores. There’s no pressure. We can just go play.”
The Jackets’ probable starting backcourt of 6-4 junior Hagen Hawn, 6-1 sophomore Alec Poore and 6-0 sophomore Tanner Boggs saw action in a combined 30 games last year, all scoring 1 point or less per game in varsity action. Sophomore Darrell White, a 6-1 forward, and Stohn Hunter, a 6-3 center, are the probable starters inside. Freshmen guards Hunter Hollingsworth and Jacob Balew are also expected to see extensive action, and eighth-graders Caleb Rose and Dalton Ponder could help when the middle school season ends.
“We want to see where we’re at when the season starts and try to get better every day,” Robinson said. “We want to get stronger mentally and physically, We have some smaller goals this year. The All “A” is always a goal. We want to get better and build for the future.”
As a former player and assistant, Derek Collins understands as well as anyone the pressure that comes with succeeding Dinky Phipps as coach of the Tigers.
Phipps, a former star player at Barbourville who led the program for 33 years as coach, stepped down in the summer and moved to Lynn Camp.
“I have big shoes to fill, but that’s part of it. It will be different, and there’s pressure,” Collins said. “I was an assistant with him for seven years, and I’ve been around the game my whole life.”
Collins inherits a veteran team that represented the 13th Region in last year’s All “A” Classic state tournament and was ranked among the top five teams in the region in the preseason.
The Tigers will feature one of the region’s best backcourts, with sophomore Markelle Turner (8.3, 2.0) at the point and seniors Brentley Perry (15.4, 2.8) and Tate Carter (10.8, 2.0) on the wings.
“I have high expectations for these boys. I have two great guards in Brentley and Markell, and I have shooters all around. They have the green light,” Collins said. “We’re not the best defensive team, but we can put points on the board.”
The Tigers’ inside attack isn’t quite as established with junior Wade Liford moving to cross town rival Knox Central. Zach Deaton, a 6-3 junior, and James WItt, a 6-1 junior are the early favorites to start in the post.
Sophomore Tanner Mills and Craig Gray will also see extensive action.
Junior guard Bradley Warren was expected to compete for a starting job but may not be able to play this season due to knee problems.
KNOX CENTRAL (18-13)
After one season as an assistant, former Knox Central star Tony Patterson takes over as coach of the Panthers, the third in three years. He will inherit a squad that lost six seniors but should be as big and deep as anyone in the region with the addition of several transfers.
“We lost some seniors, and we’ll be young from a standpoint that a lot of these kids coming in and the ones coming up have never played together, so we’re kind of starting from scratch,” Patterson said. “We’ve got plenty of size, but we need some people to step up at the guard spot.”
Chad Marsee (13.8, 9.6), a 6-5 senior, is by far the most experienced of the Panthers as he enters his fourth season as a starter. He should have plenty of help inside with 6-6 junior Wade Liford (14.4, 8.5) transferring from Barbourville and 6-7 junior Austin Allen transferring from Shelby Valley. Tanner Wells (8.6, 6.0), a 6-3 junior, is also back at forward, along with 5-11 senior Hunter Tye (2.1).
Patterson has even more options in the backcourt, including junior Jeremy Stewart (2.4) and sophomore Jermel Carton (3.0), both reserves last year. Cameron Harmon, a 6-2 junior who transferred from Shelby Valley, is also in the mix for a starting job, along with a pair of talented freshmen in 6-5 forward Nick Martin and 6-2 freshman Adam Renfro.
“I just want to see these kids progress,” Patterson said. “As young as we are, if they just compete every day in practice and in every game they will get better.”
Repeating their 17-win performance of a year ago won’t be easy with three starters graduating, but J.D. Strange, who enters his 30th season of coaching and 16th at Pineville, likes the balance of this year’s team.
“I think we could be as versatile as we’ve been in a while, and I think we’ll be little better defensively,” Strange said. “We have a lot of kids who can get up and down the floor and guard you. Our individual defense will be better 1 through 5, so our team defense will be better.”
Trent Lefevers (9.1, 5.5), a 6-0 junior guard, and Cody Carnes, a 6-4 junior swingman, return to the lineup. Football standout Tucker Woolum (2.5, 2.1), a 5-9 junior, is expected to take over at point guard. The probable starters inside are 6-3 senior Joseph Simpson and 6-0 junior Jacob Caldwell. Josh Lawson, a 5-10 sophomore, could earn a starting job at guard. Sophomores Dillon Asher and Marcus Estep provide depth inside.
“I think it comes down to working hard every day and learning to play together,” Strange said. “We have three big things we talk about — show up, play hard and keep your head straight. If we can do that, we’ll get better.”
LYNN CAMP (10-18)
Winning has never come easy at Lynn Camp, but the Wildcats have never had a coach like Dinky Phipps before, which is a big reason why the expectations are higher than usual. Phipps won over 500 games in his 32 seasons at Barbourville, but he moved across the county after a surprising exit last summer and inherits a team that appeared to be moving in a positive direction even before he arrived.
The WIldcats bring back junior Bruce Hopkins (8.1, 3.0) at point guard and will feature perhaps the biggest frontline among Class A schools in the region with 6-3 senior forward Austin Weddle (9.6, 2.8) and 6-4 senior Austin Maier (5.6, 4.1) returning and 6-3 junior Antonio Tepesano (2.1, 2.1) and 6-4 sophomore Andrew Jones also in the mix for a starting job at forward.
Branson Roaden, a 5-11 junior, and Jacob Bundy, a 6-2 sophomore, have impressed Phipps in the preseason and are early favorites to round out the backcourt. Jayden Elliott (7.9, 2.0), a 5-10 junior, is also in the mix for a starting spot in the backcourt.
“We’re not in as good enough shape as we need to be, but we have some experience with Bruce at point guard, and he’s learning what he needs to do to be out there for me,” Phipps said. “One of our strengths will be inside. If we can get some shots to fall from outside, they have to guard you all over the floor, so we’re shooting a lot of 3s in practice. We’re not running as much as I have in the past.”
Phipps, who was a star player at Barbourville in the 1970s, is making the adjustment to a new team for the first time since he was an assistant at Clay County as a student teacher in 1982.
“It’s a big change,” Phipps said. “The kids are accepting it and working hard. We have to quit putting our heads down when we make a mistake. We have to get out of that, and I do see improvement. Only time will tell.”
HARLAN COUNTY (18-11)
The Black Bears may be a year away from their best shot at a 13th Region title with a roster that includes no seniors, but after an impressive summer they find themselves listed among the contenders, due in large part to the play of junior guards Treyce Spurlock and Cameron Carmical. Spurlock (12.8, 4.1), at 6-6, is developing into one of the region’s top shooters and is already drawing Division I attention. Carmical (11.8, 2.1) is an excellent passer and defender who can also provide a scoring threat.
“We’re a pretty inexperienced team, and I’ve told them they had to follow Treyce’s and Cameron’s lead,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “They’ll take us as far as we can go. I think once some of the young ones grow up, we’ll be a good basketball team.”
David Turner, a 6-2 junior, is the early favorite to take over at center after a solid summer performance. Several sophomores who led last year’s regional championship freshman team should also play key roles, led by guards Drew Nolan, Tyrese Simmons and Andrew Creech and forward Lamar Burkhart. Junior Joey Swanner and sophomores Christian Hall and Jacob Branson should also provide a boost after a season on the gridiron.
BELL COUNTY (14-16)
Night in and night out, the Bell County Bobcats knew what they were getting last season from senior center Zach Partin (13.8, 10.5), who was one of the region’s most consistent players.
The remainder of the Bell roster was not as dependable, especially in the backcourt. When their shots fell, the Bobcats were dangerous. When the shots didn’t fall, defenses surrounded Partin and Bell had trouble scoring enough to win.
“Certain games we shot the ball decent and other we didn’t,” Morris said. “In the games we shot the ball well, we did a good job. Zach had a lot of pressure on him because he had to do a whole lot. I think the year of experience should help. Making shots is the main thing, because they will play hard. If we can make some shots and not turn the ball over, we should be all right.”
Bell will bring back junior point guard Ethan Gambrel (5.2) and junior wing Vic Morris (7.5, 2.6) in the backcourt, with 6-1 junior Peyton Collett (5.7, 3.7) returning at forward. Last year’s sixth man, 6-3 senior Jacob Hunley (6.6, 5.8), will likely round out the lineup, with 5-9 junior Dalton Callebs, 6-6 sophomore Kyle Barnett and 6-2 junior Jared Saylor serving as the top reserves.
“We’ve got some kids who haven’t played a lot, as far as depth, so we need to get them experience,” Morris said. “We just have to execute well and keep playing hard.”
If they are to get back above the .500 mark after a somewhat disappointing 2015 season, the Green Dragons will need big years from a trio of veteran guards.
Senior Drew Parks, (12.6), a four-year starter, and junior Noah Busroe (6.2, 4.7), a three-year starter, will have to carry the Harlan offense, at least until some of the younger players gain experience. Caleb Hogue (10.9, 2.7), also a four-year starter as a senior, suffered a torn ACL in the summer and is expected to miss at least half the season, leaving a hole at guard that will likely be filled by sophomore Paul Stapleton. Senior Robbie Curry (2.9) will also compete for a starting job in the backcourt.
The Dragons lost their starting forwards to graduation and have no one on the roster taller than 6-1.
“We probably won’t play with a post man,” Harlan coach David Parks said. “We’re in a situation where we don’t have very much size. There are advantages and disadvantages to that. When you have small kids, you have to make sure you do the things that don’t require talent, like blocking out. You don’t have to have talent to play hard.
Kilian Ledford, a standout freshman, is expected to start inside as part of the Dragons’ five-guard lineup. He will likely be joined by 6-0 senior Brandon Huff or 5-9 junior Trent McKenzie.
In his quest to build the struggling Middlesboro program into a regional contender like the one he played for at Corbin, Isaac Wilson is starting at the beginning, turning his preseason practices into Basketball 101.
“We have come so far since this summer. It’s quite remarkable, the steps we have taken,” Wilson said. “Our effort and attitude have been the biggest changes from the summer. They are enjoying basketball again. They are learning and starting see how a program can be run from conditioning to how practices are organized. They are seeing things from a student perspective. They are now able to throw some terminology at me in practice.”
How that increased knowledge will translate into victories is unknown. The Jackets lost three of their top six players to graduation and two other seniors are no longer playing, leaving a roster that looks similar to many junior varsity teams.
Senior Cody Smith (3.8, 3.7) is the only returning starter but will likely shift from guard to forward where he could join 6-4 freshman Nick Poindexter in the frontcourt. The backcourt is even more unsettled with sophomore Anthony Jackson and Bell County transfer Tyler Hammons the leading candidate at the point. Jarrod Davis, a 5-8 sophomore, will compete for a starting job at wing, along with Christian Hubbard and Drake Thomas.
“It’s still a process, and we have a long way to go,” Wilson said. “My message to the team since practice started has been focusing on winning two of three most important categories. If we can win the rebounding war, have less turnovers and if we can make a better foul shooting percentage than the other team it will our team a great chance to win games this year. That’s something we’ve been stressing for over a month now. We’re just trying to simplify basketball.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134