Photo by Les Nicholson

Senior guard Andrew Taylor is the 13th Region’s top-rated player and leads a Corbin squad that is ranked No. 1 in the region after finishing second last season.

Corbin favored in boys 13th Region race

Two teams coming off heartbreaking losses in last year’s regional tournament, Corbin to Harlan County in the championship game and Knox Central to Corbin in the semifinals, are the favorites going into the 2017-2018 season in another strong field of 13th Region basketball teams.

Corbin, the runner-up last year, is the preseason favorite this season with 11 of 14 first-place votes and 58 points in the annual Cats Pause/Harlan Daily Enterprise coaches poll. Knox Central, a heartbreak loser to Corbin in last year’s semifinals, is second with two first-place votes and 49 points. South Laurel was third with 33 points, followed by Harlan County with 26 points (one first-place vote) and Clay County with 10 points. Whitley County, North Laurel, Jackson County and Lynn Camp followed, with Harlan and Bell County tied for 10th.

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49th District

Clay County

With graduating hitting the Tigers hard for the second straight year, second-year coach Glenn Gray expects some growing pains for a much younger than usual Clay County squad.

“This is one of the deepest Clay County teams we’ve had in a long time, but it will be one of the youngest Clay County teams we’ve had in a long time,” Gray said. “This team has really got to come a long way on the defensive end. It will just take a process of playing time because we’re so young. I have have some kids who can put the ball in the hole, but I have to find some people who can guard somebody.”

Jacob Curry (8.8, 2.3) was one of the region’s top young guards last season as a freshman running the Clay offense. Ryan Rogers (8.0, 4.5), a physical 6-4 senior forward, also returns, but the remainder of the lineup is uncertain. Evan Langdon, a 6-4 sophomore, could provide another big body in the paint. Candidates at guard including seniors Tristion Smith and Timmy Bowling, sophomore Jakob Begley and freshmen Connor Robinson and Connor Farmer. Zack Bingham, a transfer from Jackson County, could start at forward.

North Laurel

With all-stater Peyton Broughton now at Eastern Kentucky University, the Jaguars will have to find more balance to remain in the race for the 13th Region title and overtake Clay County in the 49th District.

Brian Gray (13.6, 2.3) and Kaleb Osborne (7.3), both 6-2 seniors, are returning starters, along with Adam Sizemore (5.1), who is in his third season at the point. Rounding out the lineup are 6-3 junior forward Landon Young and 6-6 senior center Albert Oster. Others in the mix include senior guards Keenan Hernandez and Jack Capobianco, junior guard Alex Binder and sophomore guard Cole Kelly.

“Our team will be very young and inexperienced at several positions,” said North Laurel coach Brad Sizemore. “We are just trying to improve each practice and game and, hopefully, be competitive come district tournament time. I think we have several guys that bring things to the table they just need in game experience. I want this team to be known for playing hard and being a solid defensive and rebounding team.”

Jackson County

While most preseason prognosticators have North Laurel and Clay County at the top of the 49th District, Jackson County coach Greg Parrett believes the Generals should also be in consideration with two starters and several other key players back from a squad that pushed Clay to the limit in last year’s district tournament.

“Clay was the district champs last year and they beat us by one point on three very controversial calls, so I thought we were in the mix last year,” said Parrett. “I hope people feel that way, and I realize they are the two biggest schools in the district. We sort of enjoy that role. I feel our kids are at least competitive in this district.”

Tanner Harris (15.6, 7.6), a 6-1 senior forward, is back for his fourth season as a starter and will team with 6-0 junior Hunter Bowling (11.7, 2.3) on the wings. Drew Akemon (4.6), a 5-10 senior, is the probable starter at the point, with 5-8 junior McGuire Wilson also seeing action there. Probable starters in the post are 6-2 seniors Dylan Rose (5.2, 3.7) and Chase Gilbert (2.5).

Junior forward Bob Moore is also in contention for a starting job, along with senior guard Jackson King and sophomores Jayden Bowling and Logan Rose.

“Two things have to happen for us to win the district and compete with the best teams in the region,” Parrett said. “Our defense has to be better and as small as we are we have to rebound better

Red Bird

Charles David Collett has an entirely different problem heading into his fourth season as coach of the Cardinals. Instead of trying to find players who can play, Collett is trying to find playing time for everyone he believes can help as Red Bird tries to continue the improvement that took them from four wins in 2016 to 12 in 2017.

“This is by far our best team with all the elements — talent, depth, size, quickness and length,” Collett said. “We just have to keep working. The little things killed us last year, including composure in tight games. They have to understand the game better. I think we can be pretty tough by January if they improve in that area.”

Sophomore point guard Austin Napier (17.1, 5.4) was one of the region’s most improved players a year ago, will return to a backcourt that will also include 6-3 junior guard Max Kitoko (8.1, 4.0). Dylan Asher (8.2, 7.1), a 6-5 junior, will team with 6-4 sophomore Austin Simpson (3.3, 3.0) in the post. Candidates to round out the lineup include sophomore guards Dalton Finley, Daegon Finley and Jagger Wilson, as well as 6-2 sophomore forward Andrew Hoskins and 6-3 eighth-grade forward David Collett.

“I’m excited. I feel we can compete with teams this year that normally we don’t,” Collett said. “We were 17th in defense out of 17 teams in the region, so that’s one area we have to improve to get where we want to be.”

Oneida Baptist

With a roster dominated by sophomores, the Mountaineers may be a year away, according to coach Ed Lowdenback, who is still excited his team’s potential.

Sophomore guard Elijah Woods (11.8, 2.9) and 6-2 senior forward Darin Calloway (18.7, 6.3) give OBI one of the best 1-2 combinations in the region.. Senior Jindu Onuoha (3.0) will likely take over at point guard, with 6-0 sophomore Sochi Onuoha at wing.

“We have a good shooting team. If we’re shooting the ball well, we have a chance, but we might be a year away,” Lowdenback said. “We don’t have a lot of size, so that could be a problem. We have to play good defense and block out.”

Tyler Preston, a 6-0 guard, could round out the lineup with 6-5 senior Nathaniel Choe and 6-3 senior Teni Onitiri in the mix for a starting job inside. Sophomore guards Trey Gritton and Clay Hamby and senior guard Joey Potts will also see action.

50th District

Corbin

Led by the region’s top player and an experienced supporting cast, the Redhounds are embracing the role of favorite and are hungry for a championship after falling to Harlan County in last year’s finals.

“We’ve really had some good practices and a good first scrimmages,” Corbin coach Tony Pietrowski said. “They are really buying into the fact that people consider us one of the favorites in the 13th and have been practicing accordingly. I’ve been happy with practices so far?”

Andrew Taylor (29.5, 11.8), a 6-4 senior all-state guard, will continue his basketball career at Furman but would like to end his high school career at Rupp Arena. Chase Sanders (12.9), a 6-junior, is back at wing and makes it difficult for teams to focus all their attention on Taylor. Matty Taylor (4.0), a 6-3 sophomore, provides yet another scoring threat in the backcourt.

Chandler Stewart, a 6-0 senior who transferred from Lexington, is also in the mix for a starting job, along with junior guards Cameron Maguet and Brody Barton (out until midseason due to a knee injury), 6-5 junior center Jacob Unthan, 6-4 sophomore forward Alex Bryley and 6-8 senior center Bayley Rice, a transfer from Whitley County.

Since he knows the Hounds won’t have trouble scoring most nights, Pietrowski has turned the team’s focus to another areas in the preseason.

“We have to continue buy in defensively and in rebounding,” he said. “I think most nights the offense will be there. Nights the shots aren’t falling we have to have something to fall back on, so I’ve really been harping to the kids about that.”

South Laurel

Led by the talented backcourt tandem of 6-4 senior Ryan Anders (10.6, 3.2) and 6-3 junior J.J. Ramey (13.6, 3.8), the Cardinals remain among the region’s elite teams.

Senior guard Logan Madden (3.4) is also back in a lineup that could include sophomore Matt Cromer (6.0) and senior Clay Weaver. Sophomore guards Alex Hostetler (2.0) and Brett Norvell will also compete for playing time, along with freshman guard Micah Anders.

“It’s going to take a group of players for us to be successful this season,” South Laurel coach Jeff Davis said. “It’s going to take eight, nine or 10 guys. I think we are as deep as we have ever been, numbers-wise. Usually we have around eight players that play, but I think this year if everything keeps going like we think and everyone keeps working, it’s going take a group of us for us to do what we’ve done in the past.”

Whitley County

Just about everything that could go wrong for the Colonels did last season as injuries derailed any hopes that Whitley had of competing in the always tough 50th District.

“That was by far the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” Whitley County coach Jerry Overbay said. “I really like the outlook of our group. We had a really good summer. I think we could be a really good team by January.”

Senior guard Corey Johnson (20.1, 3.2) may be the region’s best shooter and returns to a lineup that also includes 6-2 junior Hunter Hollingsworth (7.8, 2.8) and 5-10 senior Blake Brown (7.0, 5.0), who is out until January with an injury. Jarrett Carr, a 6-6 senior, is the probable starter at center. Junior guards Tyler Lawson, Josh Anderson, Devin Bowling and Dakota Lawson are also candidates to start.

“I think this is the best offensive group I’ve been able to put on the floor. The key is defense, and we’ll be shorthanded in depth, especially until we get Blake back,” Overbay said.

Williamsburg

Former Bell County assistant Nick Napier takes over what should be an improving squad that gained valuable experience in last year’s rebuilding campaign, the last of 11 seasons for Patrick Robinson at the helm.

Napier will build around returning sophomore guards Caleb Rose (13.3, 4.0), Dalton Ponder (7.3, 2.7) and Slade Hunter (7.8, 3.5). Stohn Hunter (3.5, 4.0), a 6-3 senior, is back at center with either 6-1 senior Darrell White (3.8, 3.5) or 6-2 junior Hunter Brown (4.4, 4.9) taking over at forward. Alec Poore, a 6-0 guard who stars in football, is back with the team after a year away and could also work his way into the lineup.

“These guys have been working very hard and getting used to a new coach, a new system, and a new way of doing things all the way around,” Napier said. “Williamsburg student-athletes have proven to be hard workers and strong competitor. We have a lot of football players that will be playing basketball, so over half of our roster has not been out yet for fall practices.”

Napier coached at Scott County under Billy Hicks and has experience with a running style that he hopes to implement with the Jackets to capitalize on his team’s athleticism

“We will play a faster style with man to man being our base defense,” Napier said. “We want to be the aggressor and create opportunities to score off of our defense. Also, in our program, player development is the focal point of what we are doing. You must have players who can shoot, pass and dribble.”

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51st District

Knox Central

A heartbreaking semifinal loss to Corbin ended the Panthers’ hopes of ending a regional championship drought that stretches back to 1970. Knox Central will be in the thick of the race again this year with three starters back, led by senior point guard Markelle Turner (18.2, 3.4) and junior wing Jaylen Adams (7.2, 2.7). Nick Martin (10.3, 5.9), a 6-5 junior, returns at forward.

“We’re so far behind right now, probably a month behind where I’d want to be,” Knox Central coach Tony Patterson said. “The football kids came in out of shape and the younger kids who have been with me have kind of passed them up. We had 10 football kids. We’re way behind right now.”

There are several candidates to round out the lineup, led by junior guards Dane Imel (9.0) and Dalton Elliott and senior guard Jermel Carton, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Sophomore guards Zach Patterson and Kevionte Turner are also in the mix.

“Our ultimate goal is to win our last game every year. We as a team focus on building the person and molding each student athlete into a very close group of young men,” said Patterson. “That will get them far in life. There’s way more to it than just basketball. If everything goes good we can be competitive at the end of the year. We have a totally different dynamic this year and I’ve had to change so much just to fit what we can do because we’re smaller and quicker.”

Lynn Camp

It didn’t long for Dinky Phipps to turn the Wildcats into the All “A” Classic regional favorite with three starters back from a team that threw a scare into Knox Central in the 51st District finals and Harlan County in the 13th Region Tournament.

“If we can find the right chemistry on the floor we can be pretty good,” said Dinky Phipps, who enters his 36th season of coaching in the region. “We didn’t have a lot of depth last season due to sickness and injuries. We played four or five games with six kids and can’t do that. We have to stay healthy and injury free. If we do that and keep working hard, anything is possible.”

Senior guard Tanner Boggs (21.4) established himself as one of the region’s top guards with a strong showing in the postseason and returns to a backcourt that also features sophomore point guard Max Burd (9.2, 2.4), junior Josh Overbay and senior Jacob Bundy (15.4, 5.1). Andrew Jones (5.9, 3.2), a 6-4 senior, will provide size and a shooting touch in the middle. Junior guards Jacob Balew and Scott Overbay and 6-2 sophomore forward Matt Disney are also in the chase for starting jobs.

Barbourville

With four players back who averaged between 6.6 and 8.4 points per game last season, coach Derek Collins is counting on a balanced attack to help the Tigers bounce back from consecutive 16-loss seasons.

“I’m excited to see what they can do,” Collins said. “In order to win, we’ll have to have balance. I don’t have anyone who can score 30 a night, but if we can get four scoring 10 or more a game then we can be pretty good. We’ve got some pretty good quickness, so defense is important for us. We’ll have to score some off our defense.”

Connor Bain (8.4, 5.9), a 6-2 senior, is one of the region’s best post players despite being a little under the radar around much of the region. Christian Bunch (7.6, 2.8), a 5-10 senior, is expected to start at forward. The backcourt will likely include junior J.D. McVey at the point, with seniors Tanner Mills (6.6) and Trenton Schall (7.8) on the wings. Shawn Vaughn (3.6), a 6-3 sophomore, and Craig Gray (4.3), a 5-10 senior, could also work their way into the starting lineup, along with junior forward Jacob Helton.

Pineville

No team in the region was hit harder by graduation than the Lions, who lost four starters from last year’s All “A” Classic regional championship team.

“I’ve told our kids we have two or three guys who look good right now, but there isn’t a lot of difference between four and 11. We’ll see if they can separate themselves a little, but if they can’t it might not be a bad thing,” said veteran coach J.D. Strange, who enters his 18th season with the Lions. “We have a nice group of young players. We’re excited about what’s coming. They’ve had a good attitude and effort so far.”

Senior guard Josh Lawson (10.9, 3.5) is the only returning starter. Sophomore Braxton Caldwell, juniors Ben Goodin (2.5) and Matt Golden and eighth-grader Hayden Callebs are among the candidates to round out the backcourt. Senior Marcus Estep, junior Chris Saylor and sophomore Reed Baker, all 6-2, are in the mix to start in the post, as is 6-3 senior Dillion Asher.

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52nd District

Harlan County

After breaking through for their first regional title last season, the Black Bears expect to make another run this year despite losing guards Cameron Carmical and Treyce Spurlock and center David Turner to graduation. The Bears bring back a strong group of seniors led by guards Andrew Creech (6.5, 2.2) and Drew Nolan (8.4, 3.5) and forwards Tyrese Simmons (10.0, 6.5) and Lamar Burkhart.

“We lost three tremendous players and three tremendous young men and role models for our team,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “I think we have some guys who can fill that role in leadership, but I think compensating for the offense we lost will be the biggest challenge. It’s something we’ve worked on every day in practice, and our guys are accepting new roles.”

Junior guards Alex Pace and Gabe Price (2.2) could also be in the mix for starting jobs, along with junior Patrick Bynum and 6-5 sophomore Taylor Spurlock. A strong freshman class featuring forwards Hunter Helton and Kobe Burkhart and guards Tyler Cole, James Smith and Josh Turner could also provide help.

Bell County

With good size and strength inside and athleticism on the perimeter, the Bobcats appear to have the ingredients to be one of the region’s most improved teams under first-year coach Frankie Smith, who led Christian County to a 2nd Region title two years ago.

“We have good energy, which you always seem to have with a new coach,” Smith said. “The key for us is trying to get better every day. We have to learn you can’t hit a home run every time. We’ve had great practices and I’ve been pleased with the progress.”

Post play should be a strength for the Bobcats with 6-3 senior Kyle Burnett (5.2, 5.0) and 6-5 junior Tyler Partin (7.9, 8.2) returning. Sophomores Trey Brock (4.2, 3.2) and Colby Frazier (8.5) and juniors Ryan Lambin (4.4, 3.1) and Isaac Collett (3.4) are among the candidates in the backcourt, where all three starters at the end of the season graduated.

Harlan

Derrick Akal was able to transform some of the March magic that helped him lead the Harlan girls to two straight regional titles to the boys team last year as Harlan made its first trip to the regional tournament in over a decade.

“We’re a good shooting basketball team with good ball handlers,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “Our weakness is size, which could affect us on the boards. We have to be scrappy defensively to make up for our lack of size. Overall, I’m pleased with the progress.”

Junior guards Kilian Ledford (14.6, 4.9) and Cade Barnes (8.1) and sophomore guard Jacob Wilson (7.8) are returning starters. Carter Barnes (3.2), a 6-1 junior, and Jon Eldridge, a 6-3 sophomore, are candidates to start at forward. Junior guard Jared Hawkins (2.3) could round out the lineup, with talented eighth-grader Jordan Akal and juniors Caleb Adkins (2.0) and Tate Bryson also in the chase for starting jobs.

Middlesboro

After a decade at Bell County, Lewis Morris moves down U.S. 25 to take over as coach at Middlesboro where he takes over a program that has been near the bottom of the region for three years.

“They’re working hard,” Morris said. “We had only been practicing with eight kids until we got our football guys in. They’re doing a good job and giving a good effort every day. I think they will continue to improve.”

Sophomore Jabari Kyle gives the Jackets one of the region’s quickest point guards. Christian Hubbard, at 6-0, and Andrew Padgett, at 6-3, return at the forward spots for their junior seasons.

Mykel Griffin, a 6-4 junior, will compete for a starting job at center, along with seniors Taylor McClelland and Ben Bowling. Candidates to start in the backcourt are 6-2 senior Steven Poore and 5-11 senior T.J. Patterson. Junior forward Rhyan Rogers, a starter last year, suffered a broken foot in football and will be out until midseason.

“We have some athletic kids with a little size and strength,” Morris said. “I’ve not been around them very much yet but it seems like they are playing a little harder than last year. They need to buy into what we’re doing.”