By Les Dixon
The Times Tribune
A newly aligned 13th Region means defending state champion South Laurel Cardinals are labeled as the team to beat in 2005-’06.
But teams such as Casey Lester’s Harlan Green Dragons, Glenn Gray’s Clay County Tigers and defending 13th Region champion Corbin Redhounds will have something to say about who will represent the 13th Region at Rupp Arena come March.
Even though his Cardinals are being picked to become the first team to repeat as state champions since Louisville Fairdale accomplished the feat in 1990 and ‘91, South Laurel basketball coach Steve Wright wants no part of talking about his Cardinals’ chances of repeating as state champions.
Matter of fact, Wright admitted that his team wouldn’t repeat in 2005-06.
“No, we’re not going to repeat as state champions,” he said. “There’s no such thing as repeating with this team because we lost three players off of last year’s team.
“There is no question that we can compete for another state championship this year,” he added. “That’s one of our goals, but winning the district and regional titles are goals, too. We just want to take one thing at a time.”
Wright’s Cardinals enter this season with a big, red bulls-eye on their back, while being considered by many as the preseason No. 1 rated team.
“I think most of the rating is out of respect for our program,” Wright said. “Last year, we began the season at No. 3 and the guys handled the pressure and themselves well.
“I believe the pressure we went through last season will do nothing but make us better this year,” he added.
“We know there will be pressure this year, but I believe we’ll be able to handle it,” he added.
“Like I said earlier, I believe last year’s experience will help this team.”
South Laurel will face some different opposition when it comes to regional and district play this season.
The Cardinals moved into the 13th Region and 50th District thanks to realignment, but Wright doesn’t seem to mind.
“We’ve always had some teams from the 13th Region on our schedule, so we know what we’re facing,” he said. “In the district, we’ll get to play Corbin twice and that has always been a good rivalry.
“I know we’re going to get some battles, but we’ve had them before against 13th Region teams,” he added.
Corbin coach Tony Pietrowski admitted things will be a bit harder with both South and North Laurel joining the 13th Region, but he also stated no one is going to back down either.
“The addition of South Laurel and North Laurel has without a doubt improved the quality of the 13th Region,” he said. “I am very happy to have two quality programs come into our region.
“I would say that the clear-cut favorite would be South Laurel, but many teams have a chance to play the upset role,” Pietrowski added. “The great thing about Kentucky basketball is that on any given night, any team can beat another.”
1. South Laurel (32-4) - The defending state champs will have a red bull’s eye on its back this season.
The battles in the 13th Region might be a little bit harder, since the Cardinals are considered the team to beat.
“After winning the AAU again this summer, I figured we would be ranked No. 1, but we can’t just be happy with that,” Wright said. “We have a lot to improve on and I think our guys have gotten stronger and that’s going to be a big help.
“We just want to be able to compete for the state championship again,” Wright added.
South Laurel lost three players from last season’s 32-4 team.
Starting center Eric Fields (12.4 ppg), defensive specialist Warren Gross (3.0 ppg) and part-time starter DJ Perkins (4.2 ppg).
Returning starters will be Ty Proffitt (10.5 ppg), Sweet 16 MVP Walt Allen (16.1 ppg) and Jordan Hammonds (10.4 ppg).
Wright is also expecting big things out of Trey Smith (8.0 ppg), Josh Riley (3.3 ppg), Zack Marcum (2.2 ppg) and David Goodin (1.3 ppg).
“We’ve got a good, solid nucleus returning,” Wright said. “Everyone has really been working hard during our practices. We’re either practicing in the gym or we’re hitting the weights real hard.
“We know there will be pressure this year, but I believe we’ll be able to handle it,” he added.
2. Harlan (19-13) - This could be the Green Dragons’ best chance to win the 13th Region title since Mike Jones was coach at Harlan. The Green Dragons had an excellent summer and look to build on it this year.
Sharpshooter John Smith returns along with his 20.6 scoring average along with Ryan Clem (14.4), Stephen Brown (8.9), Robbie Curtis (4.1), Jon Graham (2.8), Casey Huff (5.5), Zach Goins, Derek Sheffield and Mark O’Neil.
“The strength of our team is our guard play,” Lester said. “When they are shooting the ball well, we have a chance to compete with anyone. Also, our defense has been one of our strong suits the last couple of years. We only gave up somewhere around 54 points a game last year. So I look for that to improve and help us again this year.
“Our goals are to win the All A region, District, and region,” he added. “Hopefully, the same as everyone else.”
3. Clay County (21-8) - The Tigers have a new coach in Glenn Gray and one of the top players in the 13th Region in William Jones, who scored 15 points a game last year.
Gray’s Tigers have worked hard during the offseason and look to be ready to capture the 49th District crown with the help of Jones, Anthony G. Hibbard (2.4 ppg), Dylan Sizemore (6.3), Desmond Swafford (2.0), Anthony T. Hibbard, Richard Jones, Justin Hobbs, Kevin Marcum and Zach Lewis.
Swafford could be a key player for Clay County this season. He will have the task of replacing Rodney Mitchell, who was one of the best players in the 13th Region last year.
One good thing for Gray’s squad this season is the 49th District Tournament will be held at home along with the 13th Region Tournament.
The bad thing: the 49th District does a blind draw.
4. Barbourville (22-8) - Dinky Phipps returns another solid team into the season, as four starters return from last season’s All ‘A’ Regional champions.
Matthew Cox (9.3), Chris Good (12.7), Travis Crawford (5.7) and Aaron Grubb (10.0) will lead the way for the Tigers. Phipps also has some impressive talent in Cody Messer, Derek Vanover and Garett Clark.
5. North Laurel (20-12) - Jim Conway becomes the Jaguars’ sixth coach since the school opened in 1992-’93. He replaces Daniel Brown, who took the job at Bourbon County.
The cupboard isn’t bare at North Laurel, as Conway returns senior guard Shanade Allen, who is one of the top players in the 13th Region. Allen averaged close to 15 points a game last year, while guiding North Laurel to its second 12th Region final in three years.
Also returning for the Jaguars are: Billy Carson, Justin Howard, sharp shooter Tyler Lewis, Taylor Smith, Jimmy Hendrickson and Shawn Asher.
Asher came on strong late last season and will play an important role for the Jaguars after center Chris Cessna suffered an injury during football season.
Another player Conway will look to is freshman Matthew Gilbert.
“He is a young steady point guard who is learning from Shanade and Billy every day in practice and before his career is over might be one of the best that has come through North Laurel.
“I’m very happy with the steps our program has taken,” Conway said. “Last year, the foundation was set for this program to continue to take steps to become a power statewide. Everything Coach Brown and I asked of our kids last year, they did.
“The success of last year’s team will be instrumental in our future success,” he added. “Being the regional runner-up and being ranked in the top 25 last year will obviously push this year’s team. We started something last year, now we have to build upon it and reach our goal, which is winning the region and contending for a state championship.”
Conway believes his Jaguars will have a say in who will win the regional championship this season, but he also admitted that South Laurel is considered the team to beat.
“Obviously our cross-town rival and defending state champions are our biggest concern, but you have to look at teams such as Clay County, Harlan, Barbourville, and defending 13th Region champs, Corbin,” he said.
“I have very high expectations for this team. Coming off a regional runner-up finish and a 20 win season, we will need to be ready night in and night out,” Conway added. “I can’t guarantee how many games we are going to win, but I can guarantee that our team will be very well prepared and play hard every night out and will be a team that represents North Laurel in all we do.”
6. Bell County (17-10) - The Bobcats have enough firepower to win the district and be serious contenders in the region. Eddie Whitaker’s squad returns senior Jeremy Sanders (9.6), Ryan Whitaker (14.5), Transfer Trey Goins, Brent Slusher (7.0), Jordan Turner, Shawnta Zachery, Kyle Nelson and Steven Hunter.
7. Middlesboro (12-15) - The Yellow Jackets could be the surprise team of the district. Middlesboro is led by one of the state’s best shooters in Stuart Miller (26.3). Tyler Hatmaker (10.7) is also a playmaker for first-year coach Bill Jones.
Bart Short (6.0), Josh Treece (3.3), Trevor Hoskins, Casey Earles, Will Harrison and Daniel Griffin return.
8. Corbin (21-11) - The defending 13th Region champs must find replacements for Andrew Parks and Jordan Noble, but with players such as freshman Josh Crawford (8.4), Ryan Tate (5.4), Ryan Swin and Kyle French (8.9) returning, things look to be fine at Corbin.
“I hate to set limitations on this team,” Pietrowski said. “I think many people think will be a middle of the road 13th Region team, and deservedly so at this point, but it’s our responsibility to prove those people wrong. We are young and will be playing a lot of inexperienced players, but we have to strive to defend the 50th District title, and 13th Region title.
“We can use our inexperience as an excuse; instead we should look at it as an opportunity to grow,” he added. “We must improve everyday in practice, and in every game that we play. If games were won on paper, they wouldn’t play them on the floor. It should be fun for us to play as the underdog on most nights.”
Pietrowski is also looking at players such as Deke Barley, Josh Hamlin, Clayton Sewell, Devin Rogers, Josh Smith, and Ryan Logan to help guide the Redhounds to another 50th District and 13th Region title.
9. Pineville (11-16) - The second through fifth spots are up for grabs, but the sleeper team could turn out to be J.D. Strange’s Lions.
Strange returns for starters, including 6-6 sophomore Dustin Day (13.2). James Strange (6.0), Blake Hensley (9.9), Derek Rosenbaum (7.2), Dustin Warren, Will Lambdin, Matt Combs, Brad Venable, Alex Garland, Mike Boene, Robert Daniels and Jared Jeffrey also return this season.
“The Pineville Mountain Lions have gradually improved over the past couple of seasons,” Strange said. “The Mountain Lions are becoming more consistently competitive. The fact that the Mountain Lions made it to the 13th Region Tournament last season was a big shot in the arm for a, still, very young program.
“With four starters returning from last years team, including two who were freshmen and one an eighth grader, gives promise to Pineville’s immediate and future seasons.
10. Knox Central (7-16) - Brandon Elam’s Panthers took some lumps last season, but look to be better this season as senior Marcus McKeehan returns along with his 18.1 scoring average.
Knox Central could be another surprise team with players such as Paul Hembree (5.3), Cory Williamson (3.2), Jacob Scalf (5.0), Cody Miller, Aaron Hubbard (2.5) and Tony Mills returning.
11. Cawood (26-4) - The Trojans could be in rebuilding mode after losing All-Stater Blake Hubbs. Cawood will be led by Derrick Watkins (10.2) and Joe Brock (4.6).
Also returning are: Billy Dean Shelton (2.0), Josh Caldwell, Andrew Brock, Billy Turner, Adam Rhymer, Ryan Farmer, B.J. Nolan and Kyle Hatfield.
12. Jackson County (4-22) - The Generals only won four games last year, but things look to be better for Keith Hays’ squad this season.
Nick Brumback returns, along with his 10.3 points per game scoring average. Troy Truett (8.8) and Matt Eversole (5.5) will also be expected to lead Jackson County. Hays also has Derek Cunigan (4.0) and Micah Ayers returning.
13. Lynn Camp (16-10) - Anthony Pennington’s Wildcats had a winning season for the first time in a long time after winning 16 games last year. Lynn Camp has the talent to challenge for the 51st District crown, but to do so, players such as Corbin transfer Cody Dixon (5.9) and Joe ‘The Show’ Siler must contribute throughout the year.
Lynn Camp will be led by guard Adam Bray, who scored 16 points a pop last year. Chris Eggen (10.2) and Nathan Tanner (9.7) also return.
14. Oneida Baptist (11-16) - The Mountaineers return a solid nucleus, which includes senior guard Deion Jalloh, who averaged 20.9 points a game last season. Oneida Baptist can’t be taken lightly, as Chris Cahill (9.3), Amos Nagbe (4.00, Josh Messmer (4.1), Chris Love (3.3), Millard Frost (2.6), Fred Balcin and John Hensley return.
15. Whitley County (8-17) - The Colonels could turn out to be one of the sleeper teams in the district and region. Travis Roaden (5.4), Josh Reeves (3.4), Cody Jones (4.2), and Jordan McCumbers (3.4) bring some experience to this year’s team.
Coach Guffey will also look at players Dustin Reynolds, Jacob Lowery, Adam Teague and Jamie Labanion.
16. Red Bird (10-17) - Red Bird looks to improve on last year’s 10-win season with four seniors returning to the team. John Wilson’s only problem is the lack of depth.
Senior D.J. Sizemore (12.3) leads the way, while Derek Davis (11.6) and C.R. Berry (10.1) will be expected to carry the scoring load, too. Red Bird also returns Mark Fogleman, Chris Jackson, Justin Brock and Brandon Roberts.
17. Cumberland (2-22) - Look for the Redskins to improve on its two-win season from last year. First-year coach Jerry Edwards likes what he sees in this year’s team.
“Things are going great,” he said. This my first year as head coach and it has been a major change from being an assistant.
“We have been in a rebuilding mode since going to state in 2003; I feel with the players we have coming back along with a few new players we should be able to continue to improve,” Edwards added.
Cumberland returns five starters in Brock Leisge (10.8), Ronnie Nolan (8.3), Chase Grogan (5.7), Kyle Simpson (9.9) and Matt Sturgill (5.1). Brooks Hogue (5.4) also returns to the team.
18. Evarts (5-20) - Look for the Wildcats to struggle this season after losing three starters from last year’s 5-20 squad. Dustin Meffod (9.3) returns as the team’s leading scorer along with Jamie Combs (8.2), Alex Bush (3.7), James Ledford (3.3), Jesse Farley and Cody Farley.
19. Williamsburg (9-18) - Don Haynes’ Yellow Jackets hope to build off of last season’s nine-win season. Williamsburg is the only Class A school in the 50th District. The Yellow Jackets will take forfeits against both South Laurel and Corbin in 50th District action this year.
Haynes returns only one starter in Michael McRay, while Geoffrey Witt (3.0), Steven Jeffries, Chase Hamblin, Chase Fields, Steve Taylor, J.T. Shelley and Aaron Brock will vie for playing time.
13th Region’s Top 10 Players
1. Ty Proffitt, South Laurel, - Proffitt is one of the best guards in the state and will make a run for Mr. Basketball next year.
2. Walt Allen, South Laurel, - Allen will make a run for Mr. Basketball this season.
3. Stuart Miller, Middlesboro, - One of the best shooters in the state.
4. John Smith, Harlan, - Smith’s also one of the best shooters in the state.
5. William Jones, Clay County, - Jones has the ability to be one of the best players in the 13th Region.
6. Shanade Allen, North Laurel, - One of the most underrated players around.
7. Jordan Hammonds, South Laurel, - Hammonds has the ability to score 20-plus points in any game.
8. Josh Crawford, Corbin, - One of the best freshmen in the state.
9. Ryan Whitaker, Bell County, Solid player for the Bobcats.
10. (TIE) Mathew Cox, Barbourville, Great player for the Tigers.
10. (TIE) Dustin Day, Pineville, Day is only going to get better.