Two years ago, Oneida came up just short of a state tournament bid, falling to Cosby at home in a substate game.
Oneida coach Jacob King used that game as motivation for an entire offseason, going so far as to hang a picture of Murphy Center in Murfreesboro — site of the state tournament each year — in the locker room to remind his team of their ultimate goal.
Last year, the team broke through, winning the Region 2-A championship for a second consecutive season and then taking care of business in a substate game to get to the state tournament team.
And then the rug was jerked out from under them. TSSAA canceled the state tournament as the coronavirus pandemic ratcheted up.
You can understand, then, why Oneida feels it has unfinished business. The Indians were technically a state tournament team last year, but they didn’t get to experience the environment, to savor the opportunity. It was a bitter way to end the season, but it’s provided motivation to get back. And this year, King said, his team won’t be satisfied to just say they made it.
“Our goal isn’t to get there this year,” he said. “Our goal is to go down there and win it. I mean that.”
In spite of how good they were last year, the Indians can be even better this year. They lost all of their post players, but their back court returns intact, and King said it is the best group of guards in East Tennessee Class A basketball.
Two of them are seniors, Nate Bowling and Kolby Morgan, joined by sophomore Jeric Huling. Bowling was an all-state player last season, Morgan wasn’t but should’ve been, King said, and Huling showed flashes of promise as a freshman.
As hard as it might be to believe, King said Bowling has gotten even stronger during the off-season, and he expects his senior point guard to come out with a chip on his shoulder due to what happened at the state tournament last year. He’s a Mr. Basketball candidate in Class A basketball, and as good as he is, Oneida’s top options at guard might be 1-A and 1-B rather than 1 and 2. Morgan didn’t make the all-state team last year, but King said he was snubbed.
“I haven’t seen Kolby since our last practice before we got shut down, due to football, but Kolby is Kolby,” he said. “He wanted to get back and finish what we didn’t get to finish last year.”
As for Huling, he’s a 5-9 sophomore who an dunk the basketball and will be one of the most athletic players on the floor on any given night.
As for the post position, Reece Marcum will slide into that role as a senior, and King said he expects Marcum to surprise some people.
“He didn’t get many minutes last year because we were predominately post-heavy,” King said. “But this year we don’t have many posts. Reece has transformed his body and he looks great. The three days he’s been here (for practice) so far, it’s a difference of daylight and dark between last year and this year.”
Zeb Spradlin may start at the 4-position. That could change by the time the season begins, but Spradlin will get minutes either way.
“He came in in the semifinal game against Wartburg last year when things were spiraling out of control,” King said. “We almost lost that game, but he came in and played big minutes. He’s gotten stronger and while he’s gotta work on his confidence, you’ll see Zeb play a lot more.”
Noah Buttram and Rylin Duncan are both juniors who are newcomers to the Oneida program after transferring from Scott High this season. Buttram won’t be eligible to play until December 15, while Duncan is eligible right away. Both are X-factors for Oneida’s team.
“I’ve not got to see them practice yet, but I do know they’re both athletic and I’m looking forward to getting in there and working with them,” King said.
Deshaun Brabson is a senior who has gotten much stronger during the off-season. King expects him to be able to help out defensively, though he’s going to be recovering from a broken wrist that will cause him to miss time early.
Sophomore Jacob Perry will also get some minutes in the rotation, after getting taller during the off-season and continuing to improve his understanding of the game.
Oneida has a loaded freshman class, and several of them will see varsity minutes. Gavin Keeton was expected to be an immediate contributor at post, but will miss the season with a football knee injury. His cousin, Mason Keeton, is a “great shooter, a great player, and is very knowledgeable of the game,” King said, and will play this season. Caden Rector is recovering from a foot injury and will see minutes once he’s healthy. Landon Limburg will also likely see minutes, due to his intensity on the floor.
“This freshman class knows the game of basketball better than any class I’ve had so far,” King said. “They understand the game because they’ve played so much together for so long.
“That helps my older guys,” he added. “They’re going to bring an intensity that we’ve never practiced with because we didn’t have the numbers.”
Because of that freshman class, Oneida has depth that it didn’t have last season.
“We may be young at times, but I think we’re deeper than I’ve been in a long time,” King said. “I can see nine or 10 kids playing some nights. We’ll experience with that as the season gets started.”
King said he hopes this year’s team starts out better than last year’s team, which struggled somewhat out of the gate. But if they don’t, that’s okay, because he knows that his team will find a rhythm by Christmas.
“I think this is going to be one of the best teams I’ve ever coached,” King said. “I believe that. People say, ‘You lost your posts.’ Well, I did. I lost my post players. But I have three guards that played every minute of every game last year.”
For this year’s Oneida team, it’s all about unfinished business. Some people felt last year’s team was good enough to make some noise in the state tournament. The Indians would have faced East Robertson first, followed by a potential match-up against Clay County, and they could’ve avoided the state’s top team, Booker T. Washington, until the championship game.
“I’m not going to lie, it took us a while to get over that,” King said. “Me and Coach (Torrey) Slaven, we sat down and talked. We asked ourselves how we are going to get these kids motivated to come back into a what-if situation. But once we got going, I saw it in Nate Bowling. He had a drive and a hunger unlike anything I saw last year. That made me feel good.”
It isn’t just Bowling that wants to finish what the team started last year. There was some talk that Morgan might not play his senior season because he’s a Division I football prospect.
“I understood that,” King said. “But I finally asked, ‘Kolby, are you playing?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I gotta go back and finish what we didn’t get to finish last year.’
“The motivation is there,” King added. “I think the uncertainty is there, too. That’s one thing me and my coaches have talked about: How are we going to overcome this if it happens again? I was a kid once. If I had worked all year long two years in a row and din’t get to go to the state tournament, it would’ve been hard for a coach to motivate me.”
King said his team is brimming with confidence, believing they can compete with anybody on any stage.
“These kids don’t know how to lose,” he said. “Give credit to the kids, not to me or my coaches, but to the kids. When Nate Bowling started as a freshman, we went one game under .500. Then after that we started winning. It’s fun to be around.”
Last year included some close calls, including a near-miss against Wartburg in the district semifinals. Later, in the region championship game against Harriman in Chattanooga, the Indians built a commanding halftime lead before watching it melt away in the second half as the Blue Devils roared back. The game went down to the final possession.
“In that game last year against Harriman, I was the one panicking … not Nate Bowling or these other players,” King said. “They stay calm and they found ways to win games when maybe we shouldn’t have won games. They don’t get rattled. That’s what I like about it. It’s the same thing with these coaches. They have that mentality.”
Realistically, Oneida may not face much competition in district play. Sunbright defeated the Indians last season, but lost quite a bit. Wartburg took Oneida to the wire in the district tournament. And Harriman was Harriman. But the Blue Devils lost a lot, and the Bulldogs aren’t quite where they’re accustomed to being.
But King points out the coaching experience in the district. He says Harriman’s Shay Shannon is the best coach around, and Wartburg’s Joe Layne always gets the best out of his team. Sunbright is also well-coached. And one thing is for sure: Every team is gunning for Oneida.
“I’ve talked to my guys about that more than any other year,” King said. “Everybody is going to give us their A game. We can’t take a night off just because we’re playing somebody that we’re better than. And that’s the way we want it. That’s what we wanted when we took this thing over. I’m not trying to be mean, but everybody looked at us as a win. Now they look at us and say, ‘How are we going to beat them?’”