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UCHS Basketball Preview – Inexperienced Devils hope to continue program's success

New faces will be expected to make important contributions for head coach John English and his Unicoi County High School Blue Devil varsity basketball team this season.
“We really had an uneven summer,” English said. “We’ve been getting our guys acclimated to the varsity level. We had eight seniors last year and basically played nine kids in the rotation.
“Zach Thelen is our lone guy who has any significant time from last year. As the summer went on, you could see guys adjusting to the speed and toughness of the varsity level.”
Thelen aims to be the leader of a varsity rotation that will see multiple changes throughout the year, according to English.
“The lineup people saw at the (Three Rivers Conference) jamboree is very tentative,” he added. “I already told our guys that we’re going to run through seven, eight different starting lineups. We want to make sure our lineups have a balance, we want to go more up-tempo this season.
“We had post-players likes Nic (Chambers) and Connor (Simpson) last season, so we relied on our postgame more. We’ll be going into our bench more this season. We have a couple of key pieces back with us, that weren’t with us during the summer with Merrick (Nicksic) and Jacob Smith joining the team.”
Nicksic, a senior transfer from Science Hill, will be an added spark, English said, while Smith, a sophomore, is big man down low coming off an injured ankle during the summer.
“We expect all five seniors to play a role,” English said. “Merrick, Austin (Hendrickson), Will (Shelton), Davis (Webb) and Zach. Off the bench, Dalton Spears and Ian Miller will play roles, as will Dylan Putman and Jacob as sophomores and Trevor Hensley as a freshman. We’ll do some trial-and-error things to start off the year, but we feel these guys are starting worthy and we will let roles develop as the season goes on.”
Blue Devil fans should expect to see other players get time on the floor this season.
“Clay Simpson has a bright future ahead of him,” English said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at the varsity level. Hunter Hensley, Brandon Caldwell and Ethan Godsey are first-year players. Also, guys like Brett Lemmon and Chase McNabb could potentially see time. All our guys bring something valuable to the team. Our rotations and lineups will change, game to game.”
The Three Rivers Conference will keep its amount of competitiveness from last season, English said. Sullivan South emerged as conference champions while Johnson County earned the District 1-AA title in the postseason. The Blue Devils battled throughout the tournament to earn runner-up in the Region 1-AA tournament, defeating the Longhorns in the semifinals.
“It’s a real weird time in our league,” English said. “If you look at everyone’s roster, there isn’t much turnover except for us. We’re going to see a lot of the same faces we saw last season this year. It’ll be competitive, if not more, this season.”
It is a situation the Blue Devils will not back down from, English said. Eight substate berths in the past 10 years has this team ready to carry on the tradition, he added.
“We’ve been fortunate,” said English. “These guys want to keep it going. It is important to them. We want to put ourselves in the sweet 16 each year. They’ve experienced it, they’ve been on those trips to regional title games and sectional games. These seniors have waited for their time and they are anxious to make their own impact on the program.”
A tough regular season schedule will help prepare the team for the postseason, English said.
“We beefed it up,” he added. “We added Science Hill our first week. We’ve got a home and away with David Crockett, who may be the best team in the area. We have the Bearden tournament during Christmas and we’re going to defend our title in the Hardee’s Classic during Thanksgiving. Our schedule will be tough, but that’s the way we want it.”
Now that the regular season has arrived, seeing the players develop and grow will be vital to the team’s success, English said.
“I think of all years, this season will be about the process,” English said. “I do feel like between our schedule and our kids, our record may not be great early but by tournament time, we’ll be a team people won’t want to play.
“It is an exciting time and it may be the most excited I’ve been about any team I’ve coached. I can’t wait to to see what this team can do.”
The Blue Devils coaching staff is comprised of English, assistant coach Michael Smith and assistants Ben Evely and Drew Rice.