By Trey Williams
After a heartbreaking 83-82 loss at Sullivan East in the district tournament third-place game on Feb. 25, the Unicoi County High School basketball season ended without any drama in a regional quarterfinal on Saturday, Feb. 29, at Greeneville.
But the Greene Devils’ 90-49 victory didn’t eclipse the positives Blue Devil head coach John Good saw during his debut season in Erwin, much less cloud the prospects for coming seasons.
The Blue Devils finished with a 17-17 record and would’ve won 20-22 games had they shot free throws at better than a 66 percent rate. They lost three games by a combined total of four points to East, and errant foul shots were fatal each time.
“I don’t want to say we met expectations (going .500),” Good said. “But just having Brett (Lingerfelt) and Brock (Thompson) with the only experience, basically, and starting a sophomore point guard in Bryson (Peterson) and a freshman post (Lucas Slagle), I’m extremely happy with the way we played.”
Although the Three Rivers Conference will return a relatively large percentage of key players, the Devils will expect to contend for a title next season.
Junior Brock Thompson averaged a team-high 15 points per game. He scored 38 points and made eight 3-pointers in last week’s loss at East. Thompson had to contend with double teams almost every game.
Slagle, a freakishly good rebounder for a freshman, tallied 15 points against the Patriots, and led the Devils by matching fellow freshman Grant Hensley’s 10 points at Greeneville. Slagle finished the season averaging a double-double (10.3 points, 12.2 rebounds) and two blocked shots per game.
Good was given pause when asked if he could recall a freshman that’s rebounded like Slagle, eventually noting Science Hill Hall of Famer Jovann Johnson, who he added didn’t put up similar numbers consistently at that age.
“Lucas ended up with 414 rebounds,” Good said. “It’s crazy. He’s a special player, that’s for sure. … Jovann Johnson comes to mind as someone, as a freshman, being aggressive like that.”
Experienced returnees next season will include Robbie O’Dell, Jordan Bridges, Mason Barcel and Zach Hopson.
The Blue Devils graduate six seniors – Brett Lingerfelt, Phoenix Holt, Nicholas Hensley, Caleb Adkins, Nick Lynch and Boone Reed. Only Lingerfelt and Adkins got a steady workload.
“But, honestly, and I told them last night (Saturday), I can’t remember us having a bad practice,” Good said. “They always came to practice. They always brought it. … And it was tough on them, I know, when I came in.”
Lingerfelt nearly exited a hero. While East was trying to stall for the final shot last week, Lingerfelt made a steal and hit two free throws to give Unicoi an 82-80 lead with 10 seconds left. But the Patriots’ Ethan Bradford answered with a last-second 3-pointer, his ninth of the game, in what was the last game in the Dyer Dome for 36-year veteran East coach John Dyer.
“I have a ton of respect for him as a coach and as a man,” Lingerfelt said. “That was a nice way for him to go out in his own gym. Having said that, I was glad to steal the ball and sink two free throws to try and get the win for us.
“Congratulations to him on a great run. I wish him the very best. You have to respect a man who gave so much of himself so long to his players and his school.”
Lingerfelt’s end-of-career lament exemplifies the life lessons athletics can teach like few other high school activities.
“It’s been an honor for me to be a Blue Devil for so many reasons that are bigger than the game to me,” Lingerfelt said. “Working Blue Devil camp, meeting some incredible people – even on other teams – and learning to hold my head high during highs and lows are things I’ll take away. I’m looking forward to good things ahead and appreciate all the people who have supported me along the way.”
Good is more convinced than ever that he made the right decision with his move to Unicoi County from David Crockett, where he took the Pioneers to their only state tournament in 49 years.
“I knew Crockett would be better (this season) … just because of them being seasoned kids,” Good said. “But the move was for longevity, it wasn’t for the moment. The future is bright at Unicoi.”