From Staff Reports
The Unicoi County High School Blue Devil varsity basketball team will be hitting the court with three starters returning from last season’s team, which posted a 19-15 record and advanced to the semifinals of the region tournament under head coach Michael Smith.
This experience and a group of athletic players off the bench should spell trouble for the Blue Devils’ opponents each game.
“Our expectations this season are the same as any other year,” Smith said. “We want to win the league, win the district and the region tournaments. We want to be playing in a substate game, so we can have a chance at a state tournament berth.”
Leading that charge for a state berth will be three seniors – Trevor Hensley, Clay Simpson and Troy Podvin – all of whom will be starters for the Blue Devils.
Hensley, a guard, was the Blue Devils’ leading scorer from last season, averaging 20 points and 5 assists.
Simpson and Podvin will control the paint and the boards for UCHS, Smith said. Simpson averaged almost 8 points and 8 rebounds for game last season. Podvin averaged 8.5 points and 8 rebounds and was a starter for the final 14 games of last season. When he started games, Podvin averaged a double-double.
“We are expecting a lot out of our senior guys,” Smith said. “They are a great group of players and they can meet those expectations.”
Starting at the point guard spot will be junior Gavin Casey. Smith said Casey is a good ball handler, passer and defender.
Rounding out the starting lineup will be junior Brett Strother, who Smith said is the team’s defensive specialist.
“Brett is one of our better athletes,” Smith said. “He can handle the ball and will probably guard the other team’s best player night-in and night-out.”
Five players off the varsity bench will be expected to contribute as well, according to Smith. They include: juniors Danny Lowery, Austin O’Dell and Ty Thelen: sophomore Brett Lingefelt; and freshman Brock Thompson.
Lowery is a post player who saw some varsity minutes last year.
“Danny is a good athlete who jumps well and is a good defender and rebounder,” Smith said.
O’Dell and Thelen are both good defenders, according to the head coach. O’Dell will play in the post, while Thelen will play on the perimeter.
Lingerfelt and Thompson will sub-in at guard spots.
“Brett and Brock are both good offensive players who can shoot the ball very well,” Smith said. “As they get more game experience, they will continue to improve.”
Rounding out the varsity squad are sophomores Nicholas Lynch and Caleb Adkins. Smith said four other sophomores – Nicholas Hensley, Boone Reed, Noah Tilson and Phoenix Holt – will occasionally dress with the varsity this season.
Assets for the varsity squad this season are their size athleticism, strength and depth, Smith said.
“We are very athletic at every position,” he added. “We also have good size at almost every position. We really feel like we can use that to our advantage to put defensive pressure on other teams. All of our guys have also worked hard in the weight room during the offseason and have gotten stronger because of that. We have seen the positive impacts of that during our preseason scrimmages. Our guys are doing a better job of being physical and getting into position to score.”
The Blue Devils will once again play in the Three Rivers Conference. Joining UCHS in the league are Elizabethton, Happy Valley, Johnson County, Sullivan Central, Sullivan East and Sullivan South.
“It’s going to be a tough league from top to bottom,” Smith said. “We are going to have to compete every night. But, we want that because it makes you better. That will get us ready for tournament time at the end of the season.”
Non-conference games won’t be a cakewalk for the Blue Devils either. Facing AAA teams such as David Crockett and Science Hill, as well as the perennially tough A schools Hampton and Cloudland mean the Blue Devils will be facing tough competition each time they take the court.
Joining Smith on the sidelines this season will be assistant coaches Ben Evely, Jordan Simmons, Eli Barnwell and Malcolm Foreman.
The Blue Devils will play their season opener in Hall of Champions action on Thursday, Nov. 16, at 1 p.m. at Volunteer High School against the Falcons. They will continue Hall of Champions play on Saturday, Nov. 18, in Erwin when they host Cumberland Gap. The junior varsity squad will play at 1 p.m., followed by the varsity squad.
The Blue Devils will open the 28th Annual Hardee’s Classic on Monday, Nov. 20, at David Crockett High School at 7 p.m. Their opponent will be the tournament-hosting Pioneers. The Blue Devils won the tournament last season – the fifth in school history – and they are hoping to bring another title back to Erwin.
“I always like playing in the Hardee’s Classic,” Smith said. “For an early season tournament, it’s always a good gauge of where you are as a team and what you need to work on. We have a tough draw against a good Crockett team, but we are going in ready to compete for the title.”
Win or lose on Monday, the Blue Devils will play on Tuesday, Nov. 21. The tournament will continue on Friday, Nov. 24, and Saturday, Nov. 25.