By Scottie Blankenship
The Unicoi County High School boys’ basketball team will be hitting the hardwood with four starters returning from last season’s team which posted a 19-13 record and advanced to the region tournament before losing in the first round under head coach Michael Smith.
That experience, plus a group of talented underclassmen, could spell trouble for the Blue Devils’ opponents.
“We feel confident that we can be in the top half of the league and compete for a championship,” Smith said. “We have a lot of kids returning and have a lot of experience.”
Smith also said his team has worked hard this preseason to get the pieces in place for a successful campaign.
“With some players missing practices because of football and injuries, we are still a work in progress,” Smith added. “We are still learning how to play together. I think we are going to be a good team when we can get all the pieces together and on the court.”
Leading the attack for UCHS will be junior point guard Trevor Hensley whose play as a sophomore looked more like the play of an experienced upperclassman.
“Trevor plays year round and is in the gym when he’s not playing,” Smith said of the point guard.
Hensley led the Blue Devils in scoring last season, averaging just under 18 points per game. But, he’s not just a scorer – he also averaged 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game last season.
Fortunately for Smith and the Blue Devils, Hensley isn’t the only player who can fill up the stat sheet. Guard Dylan Putman returns for his senior campaign. Last season, he averaged 12 points and 2 assists per game. He is also a leader for the team, according to Smith.
“Putt is emotional, aggressive and physical,” the head coach said, “and, he has an enormous will to win.”
In the paint, UCHS is returning two guys who are no strangers to anyone in the Three Rivers Conference. Whether it’s staring down a batter from the pitcher’s mound or chasing opposing quarterbacks around the football field, junior Clay Simpson and senior Jacob Smith bring size, skill and athleticism on the post.
“We have two big guys that we expect a lot out of defensively and to help us out offensively,” Smith said of Simpson and Smith. “Jacob is a very tough and hard-nosed player. He gets after it.
Clay can play both inside and out and is a solid player. We need them to use their size and physical abilities to help us win the rebounding battle each game.”
Both Simpson and Smith averaged just under 9 points and 9 rebounds per game last season.
Guards Troy Podvin, a junior, and Chase McNabb, a senior, are also expected to play substantial minutes this season.
“Troy and Chase can both score, rebound and are good defenders,” Smith said.
Seniors Michael Howell and Shaddon Peavyhouse, who, along with Jacob Smith, are coming off a successful football season, are expected to be defensive specialists for UCHS.
“We think we can put Michael and Shaddon on anyone on the floor and feel very good about the matchup,” Smith said of the two seniors.
Rounding out the varsity squad are sophomores Gavin Casey, Danny Lowery, Austin O’Dell, Brett Strother and Ty Thelen and freshman Brett Lingerfelt.
“I think our sophomore class is a good group,” Smith said. “They have good ball handlers and good post players and they really play hard. Brett Lingerfelt is a hard worker with a lot of skill. We expect a lot out of all those guys as they get older.”
Smith said the battle for the Three Rivers Conference crown will be a tough one with five teams – UCHS, Sullivan East, Elizabethton, Johnson County and Happy Valley – being capable of winning the title.
“Any of us could win the league,” Smith said. “It will be a battle, night in and night out, for the championship.”
Joining Smith on the sidelines this season will be assistant coaches Ben Evely, Jordan Simmons and Malcolm Foreman.
Fans will get their first look of the Blue Devils on Thursday, Nov. 18, when they host the Volunteer Falcons at 1 p.m. in the Devils’ Den in Hall of Champions action. The team will take to the court again on Thursday to face Greeneville at 6:30 p.m.
Hall of Champions action will continue on Saturday, Nov. 20, when Cherokee visits Erwin. Action will begin at 11 a.m. with the junior varsity girls’ game. This will be followed by the junior varsity boys’ game at 12:30 p.m., the girls’ varsity game at 2 p.m. and the boys’ varsity game at 3:30 p.m.
“I expect three tough games for us,” Smith said of the Hall of Champions games. “It will be three good tests for us going into the season.”
The varsity Blue Devils will play in the Hardee’s Classic next week. They will open play on Tuesday, Nov. 22, against Hampton at 5:30 p.m.
Win or lose, UCHS will play on Friday and Saturday. Opponents and game times will be announced as the tournament progresses.
“We are going into the Hardee’s focused on winning our fifth title,” Smith said. “We have a tough draw against a good Hampton team.”