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Having lost 10 of 13 players from a team that won its second straight Division 1 state championship, GALAX is easily the least experienced of the three Twin County boys’ basketball teams. But that doesn’t mean the Maroon Tide doesn’t know how to win.
Galax coach Verl Brown will have at his services the bulk of a two-time district champion junior varsity squad, but how that JV success carries over to the varsity level remains to be seen. Varsity experience is virtually nonexistent on the 2012-13 Maroon Tide roster.
Brown is wise enough to know that December isn’t nearly as important as February, which gives Galax (27-2 last year) plenty of time to define itself and to settle on a core lineup with which to attack the key part of the season.
“Being in this situation before, the biggest thing we’ve got to do is find a group than can play together, and to let these kids know that this is their own identity,” Brown said.
Donte Peoples, Timmy Gable and Jacob Kohl were the only non-seniors on last year’s state title team. Gable, at 6-2, and the 6-6 Kohl will be at center.
Chandler Quesenberry spent the regular season on the JV squad last year before moving up to varsity for the postseason, and the 5-8 then-sophomore regularly found himself on the floor in situations other than mop-up duty, getting some meaningful minutes in both the region and state tournaments. He will run the offense from the point position this year. Not unexpectedly, that offense will need some fine-tuning with so many fresh faces running it.
“I thought we looked very ragged,” Brown said of a Thursday scrimmage against Oak Hill’s red team. “Offensively we never really got into a set. Defensively I think we’ll be alright. We won’t be overpowering on defense. We’ll have to do different things to adjust to our game. Some of the young kids have potential, they just need to play with confidence, and believe in what we do.”
Stu Merdian (6-2) is the lone freshman on the team and will give the Tide an athletic, good-sized 2-guard. Caleb Pack, Darien Brown, Keyshawn Brown, Chase Garvey, Isaac Jordan and Dominic DiGiacomo are all good athletes and will need to find a way to mesh into a cohesive unit, and to become acclimated to the speed, size and atmosphere of the varsity game.
“We just need to play ball and figure out what style suits us best,” Brown said.
Despite the unfamiliarity with the varsity level of play, this edition of the Maroon Tide is used to being part of a successful program.
“We’re hoping the winning tradition, both on JV and varsity, will continue to be in their minds,” said Brown. “They have a legacy to keep going. I’m not putting any more pressure on them than I am on myself, I just want them to be the best they can be and represent the school and themselves as well as they can.”
CARROLL COUNTY won 19 of its first 23 games a year ago, swept undefeated through the Southwest District regular season and tournament and strutted into the Region IV Division 4 tournament as the top seed.
The Cavaliers are hoping this season sees an improvement over all of that.
While the regular season couldn’t have gone much better for Carroll, the nitty-gritty part of the calendar lasted all of one day as the Cavaliers took a 16-point loss to then- .500 Hidden Valley in the region semifinals.
A glance at the roster would suggest the pieces are in place for a more prolonged foray into the postseason this time around. Cavalier coach Brad Hawks returns four starters, including an extremely talented backcourt. Carroll has the size that, if he so chose, Hawks could trot out a starting lineup that goes 6-6, 6-6, 6-5, 6-5 and 6-4. And the Cavaliers are deep all the way around.
“I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Hawks said Thursday. “We’ve beefed the schedule up a little bit, and hopefully we’ll find out what we have early in the season.”
Guard play should be huge for Carroll County, which returns district player of the year and honorable mention all-Group AA pick Ryan Gravley. The 6-1 Gravley averaged 15.2 points and 5.6 assists last year as a point guard, but he’ll hand those duties off to Gunnar Beamer.
“Gunnar is really, really solid with the ball and I think Ryan may have gotten worn down a little last year running point,” Hawks said. “I want Ryan to be freed up to score a little bit more this year and be a threat from the wing.”
Connor Lundy can already be described as such. The 6-4 junior dropped in seven 3-pointers in his first varsity game as a freshman.
“He’s grown a little bit and I think he’ll be able to finish over the top of people now to compliment his outside game.”
Overall size and depth in the post opens up several possibilities for Hawks. Cody Keith (6-3) and Duncan Reece (6-6) should help Carroll improve on what was a sub-par rebounding effort last year, while Hawks can throw out big bodies like Tyler Lineberry (6-5), Austin Horton (6-4), Lucas Holder (6-5) and Tayler Hayton (6-5).
“That’s some pretty good size down low and we should be able to control the boards,” Hawks said. “We should be able to score down there, so I think we can keep defenses honest because we’ll be able to run more people in and out, and not have to worry about foul trouble as much.”
Depth amongst the trees will also help the Cavaliers keep the tempo up from start to finish.
“We’re going to try to get up and down the floor as much as we can,” Hawks said. “We had a lot of success getting out and pressuring people, and we’ll try to compliment that with some man-to-man.”
With few visible weaknesses, Hawks said his big concern going into the season was his kids’ approach to the game on a nightly basis.
“I want to see a killer instinct for each team we play, whether it’s Galax or Abingdon or anybody,” he said. “I want them to have the same mentality in every game.”
While Carroll County’s roster puts the Cavaliers in an enviable position, GRAYSON COUNTY won’t be exactly covetous of its neighbor to the east. The Blue Devils are in the same position themselves.
Experienced, talented and (for the first time in quite a while) deep, the Blue Devils should have every opportunity to improve upon last year’s 15-11 mark. That record was impacted by the fact that the Mountain Empire District last year included a state champion and a state semifinalist. This may be the Devils’ year to carry the MED banner into the postseason.
Grayson will start three players who may finish their careers as 1,000-point scorers, and a deeper bench will provide coach Lucas Austin the ability to apply the withering pressure that a thin bench forced him to rein in at times last season.
“We’ve got some good returning players, for sure,” said Austin, who will have at his disposal six players in their third or fourth varsity season.
“I think we’ll be more mature this year with our experience, and we’ve got a lot of scoring coming back,” Austin said.
Indeed he does. Mikey Rodgers, Ty Cannaday and Max Rodgers could all score their 1,000th point by the time they graduate. Mikey Rodgers, a 6-2 senior, averaged 11 points and 5.5 rebounds as a junior but missed half the season due to injury. Six-foot-1 point guard Ty Cannaday was good for 15.2 points and 5.1 assists per night as a sophomore, and fellow junior Max Rodgers (6-4) led the Twin Counties by scoring 18.6 points per game and was second with a 7.5 rebounding average.
Cannaday is a true point guard and can either distribute or score. Mikey Rodgers is dangerous off the dribble and Max Rodgers has both the size to post up and the skill to handle the ball and score from the perimeter.
Adam Wyatt (6.2 ppg), Landon Frost (7.6), Lucas Rudy (6.0), Jack Circle and Spencer Roberts have all been around a while and will give Grayson more depth than the Devils have had in several years.
“That’s what I’m really excited about,” said Austin, “being able to play defense as hard as I’d like us to, and still run up and down the floor for four quarters.”
Austin could start any of seven or eight different players, depending on the situation.
“I think our key is just putting it all together as a team and playing defense,” he said. “We’ve got to step it up a notch. Our whole philosophy is to get up and down the floor and we assume that we want to play hard-nosed defense, but that’s kind of hard to do playing six or seven guys. I think we’ll be able to do both of those things this year.”
The consensus is that the Blue Devils will be the team to beat in the district. Austin doesn’t necessarily disagree, but he knows the MED will not be an easy league to navigate this year.
“We’ve got the potential to be a very good team but we’re going to have to work at it,” Austin said. “Fort Chiswell will be fine. Galax and Graham will be good and it looks like Bland is going to be pretty solid. We’ve got the athletes to do it, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk, I can tell you that.”