Region Champs

The Blue Devils celebrate their regional championship victory, but now their focus is on state play in Murfreesboro, which begins (today) March 14.

Unicoi County’s first trip to the state tournament in 37 years, the pundits will tell you, could very well be a short one.

But drawing top-ranked Haywood (29-5) for a state quarterfinals matchup on Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. (Eastern) is seen as an opportunity more than an obstacle by Blue Devils second-year head coach Jordan Simmons.

“We have been pouring over film the past six days trying to learn as much as we can about Haywood,” Simmons said. “It was definitely a tough draw with them having been ranked No. 1 in AAA pretty much all year. But at this point in the season everyone is really good. …

“I think the two keys for us are to limit our turnovers and keep them off of the offensive glass. If we do those two things, I really like our chances. It is going to take one of our best performances of the year, but if we can play confidently and execute, we can get the job done.”

Haywood point guard Tylon Chatman is a Mr. Basketball finalist. He’s averaging 20.0 points per game, 4.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.0 assists.

“He can score from all over,” Simmons said. “He is really quick and is really good at getting to his spots.”

Unicoi County 6-foot-5 senior post Lucas Slagle will have his hands full with 6-foot-7 senior Janerus Snipe. He’s averaging 13.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots per game.

“He is about 6-7, 250 (pounds) and extremely skilled,” Simmons said.

Jaybyon Snype, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, is averaging 11.8 points per game. And senior 6-foot-2 wing Jamari Person (8.0 ppg) leads the team with 2.9 steals per game.

“He has signed to play wide receiver for Colorado State next year,” Simmons said. “They have good overall size and are incredibly athletic. They are going to be really aggressive defensively and look to attack the rim on offense.”

Haywood is coached by Rodney Chatman. His staff includes Haywood alumnus Jarvis Varnado, who set an NCAA Division I career record with 535 blocked shots for Mississippi State.

There’s been no shortage of potential distractions since Unicoi County cruised past Knox Carter in the Sectional at the Devils Den on March 6.

“The past week has just been surreal,” Simmons said. “The environment Monday night (for the sectional) was just absolutely electric, and I think all of that excitement and energy has just carried over to this past week. We have had so many people reach out to us and offer congratulations. The entire county has just been amazing, and we can’t thank them enough. We have had a number of individuals and businesses get in touch with us and provide help and support for our trip to Murfreesboro. I think everyone wants our guys to really enjoy this experience and be able to soak it all in. 

“I am just so excited for our school, for our county and for all the Blue Devils who may live elsewhere but have kept up with and supported us this season. We truly live in such a special place. One of the coolest parts of all of this has been the messages and phone calls from our alumni. We have heard from guys who graduated last year and guys who graduated 40 years ago who are just excited for and proud of this team.”

Simmons sees all the hubbub being more of an energizer than a hurdle.

“It has been an incredibly fun week, but we have been going to work to get ready to go win some games in Murfreesboro,” he said. “Our team is very proud and excited, but they aren’t satisfied. They were all texting me an hour after the game Monday wanting to know who we drew in the bracket. As soon as it came out Tuesday morning, I sent it out to them, and the prep began.”

Looking back, defeating two-time defending state champion Greeneville in a do-or-die region semifinal, appears to have been the tallest task.

The Greeneville game definitely felt a little special since they’ve kind of been like a barrier the last few years that nobody can get past,” freshman point guard Jackson Simmons said. “But I don’t think it compares to the feelings after a regional championship or substate (sectional) win since they haven’t been accomplished in so long. I don’t feel like the team will be any less hungry now (at the state) than we were before (securing the state berth). Being the first team in so long, we’re not satisfied to just make the tournament.”


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