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Jr. Blue Devils bounce back from slow start to season

After starting the season 0-3, the Unicoi County Middle School boys basketball team ended the 2019-20 with an 18-7 overall record. (Contributed photo)

By Trey Williams

A gratifying postseason was the farthest thing from coach Jordan Simmons’ mind when his Unicoi County Middle School basketball team began the season with three straight losses.

But the Blue Devils steadily righted the ship and sailed all the way to the sectional tournament. An 18-7 season concluded with a loss to Sweetwater in the first round of the sectional at Anderson County.

“Losing in the first round is always tough, but it’s only the fifth time our middle school has made it to a sectional on the boys’ side,” Simmons said. “So it’s really something to be proud of. We started the year 0-3, and after that third loss if someone had told us we were gonna end up 18-7 and be in the sectional tournament, I really wouldn’t have believed them. I would’ve thought they were crazy. But it’s really just a testament to how hard the kids worked this year.”

Post Caleb Peterson and point guard Mason Hensley, both eighth graders, made the all-conference team, as did sixth-grade guard Jackson Simmons. Chris Chavez (eighth grade) and Garrett Sellars (seventh grade) received honorable mention.

Peterson led the Blue Devils in scoring (13.8 points per game), rebounding (7.0) and blocks (2.2). Simmons sees a bright future for the Unicoi County High School frontcourt when Peterson gets to team with freshman Lucas Slagle the next three seasons. Peterson is comfortable with his back to the basket and Slagle is adept facing up from mid-range.

Simmons was second on the team in scoring (6.4), assists (2.1), steals (1.7) and 3-point shooting (37 percent), and third in rebounds (3.9). Hensley led the Devils in assists (3.2).

“Caleb Peterson was very consistent,” Simmons said. “He had a great year. Jackson was second in (scoring, assists, steals, 3-point shooting) as a sixth grader. Mason Hensley played the point for us. He didn’t do a lot scoring wise, but he really ran the offense and was a stabilizing force for all of us.”

Chavez led the team in steals (5.0) and was second in rebounds (5.0).

“Chris Chavez was very active defensively,” Simmons said. “He has a great motor, led us in steals for the year and was one of our better rebounders.”

Sellars led the team in 3-point shooting (38.2 percent) and was third in scoring (5.6).

Simmons anticipates a guard-heavy lineup for the 2020-21 season.

“Next year we should be able to defend at a very high level and be very versatile in what we do,” Simmons said. “The top seven or eight guys that are gonna play are all going to have very good guard skills. We won’t have a true point guard, but those seven or eight guys will give us a point guard by committee with everybody just kind of looking to attack. I think we’ll play some exciting basketball next year.

“Garrett Sellars and Gage Casey really shot it well from the perimeter. They’ll be key guys coming back for us next year. Keilet Rodriguez’s improvement from October until February was just unbelievable. By the end of the year he was the sixth or seventh guy on varsity coming in there.

“Kolby Jones is a sixth grader that played well for us, but just battled injuries all year long,’ Simmons continued. “He’ll have a key role going forward. I think if we could’ve kept him healthy, I think he would’ve been a big part of what we did this year.”

Finishing second to Surgoinsville in a Christmas tournament at Jonesborough and finishing runner-up to Doak in the area tournament were among the season highlights.

“We got a big win against T.A. Dugger, which advanced in the AAA conference tournament,” Simmons said. “We beat them in our in-school game, I think, by 10 or 12. That was a big win for us. We went 9-0 in our area. So we went to the area tournament as the No. 1 seed.

“It was a good year. And it was a pleasant surprise. The kids kept working and it paid off in the end. They all worked hard. Kids were there every day. When I’d have an optional practice, we’d have 24 out of 24 guys would show up for it. So when you’ve got kids that are really bought in and want to get better and want to work and want to be coached, it’s really just kind of a coach’s dream.”