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Home Sports Notebook: Taking stock of local basketball teams

Notebook: Taking stock of local basketball teams

The first week back in play was a big one for local high school basketball teams. Scott High played three games in five days, while Oneida played four games in five days. For the Indians, it was the first games in two weeks. For the Highlanders, it had been even longer. Scott’s boys hadn’t played in 24 days; the girls hadn’t played in 31 days.

The return to play felt like a reboot of the basketball season. And as we get back into the swing of things, we start to get a sense of where each team stands.

1.) Oneida Lady Indians — When you judge preseason expectations against what has transpired, there is no doubt that Coach Marv West’s Lady Indians have been the team that has excelled the most.

Not that Oneida didn’t expect to be exactly where it is at this point. West pointed out before the start of the season that he expected his team to contend for the District 3-A championship once again in 2021.

But a lot of other teams in the district weren’t so certain. After Oneida lost five seniors to graduation in the spring, the rest of the district seemed convinced that the Lady Indians would be unable to compete for a district crown. Some folks said openly that they might not even advance out of the district as one of the four teams that go on to the regionals.

Yet, through their first six district games, the Lady Indians remain undefeated. No team has been able to stay within single digits of Oneida. Wartburg came the closest, losing by 12. The Lady Indians’ average margin of victory is a whopping 24 points.

Oneida made a statement in the district opener, rolling to a 21-point road win over a Sunbright team that many considered the favorite to win the district this season. The two teams are set for a rematch at OHS Gymnasium on Friday, but if the Lady Indians are truly 20 points better than Sunbright, there isn’t a team in District 3-A that can hang with this OHS squad.

With that said, one would expect Friday’s rematch to be much closer. We saw the two teams on the same floor at Scott High School in the pre-Thanksgiving Hall of Fame classic, and Sunbright knocked off a solid Clay County team that breezed past Oneida earlier in the day. We know Sunbright is a talented team and, because of their youth, the Lady Tigers will continue to improve as the season progresses.

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But you’re right to wonder whether there’s anyone in District 3-A who can unseat the Lady Indians. They simply have too many weapons.

It starts with sophomore Kelsey Pike, who has established herself as the best player in the district. But she has a very strong supporting cast, starting with the seniors who share the floor with her. Katelyn Stiltner and Gracie Martin have shown that they can put the team on their shoulders when they need to. Emily Wisner was one of the heroes of that relatively close game against Wartburg, scoring seven fourth quarter points to help put the Lady Bulldogs away. Jacey Manis is one of the district’s best outside shooters. Caroline Bell adds tremendous depth.

Clearly, the Lady Indians’ predicted demise was both premature and exaggerated.

If there is a concern, it is that Oneida has struggled outside of district play. The Lady Indians lost to Cosby by 12 — although that game was tight late and Oneida was without Pike. They lost by 28 to Clay County, by 37 (twice) to Clarkrange, and by 18 to York Institute.

But the only one of those teams that Oneida could potentially meet in the postseason, short of advancing to Murfreesboro, is Cosby … and that wouldn’t come until the substate.

The key to getting to the substate for the Lady Indians is likely going to be winning the District 3-A tournament in February and making sure they’re seated opposite Tellico Plains in the Region 2-A tournament. The Bears have become a perennial contender in region play, and they’re once again atop the District 4-A standings this season. They look good, too. In fact, they’re 8-0 and their closest game was a 17-point win at Polk County. Their average margin of victory is 29 points per game. They rolled Wartburg, 65-35, in a Hall of Fame game in November.

No one else in District 4-A looks particularly concerning. But Tellico Plains is legitimate. It could very well come down to Oneida and Tellico Plains in the region championship game unless someone like Sunbright is able to step up and play a spoiler’s role.

2.) Scott Lady Highlanders — Scott High coach Jake Wright challenged his senior leader, Julia Butts, during and after the Lady Highlanders’ blowout loss at Cosby on Jan. 5.

Scott High managed just 30 points, lost by 33, and Wright was not happy with his team’s competitiveness or desire. He challenged the entire team. But coaches are especially demanding of their seniors.

Butts bounced back in a big way. She had 11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals when the Lady Highlanders rematched Cosby 72 hours later. In the rematch, Scott had the lead in the final two minutes before narrowly losing.

Less than 24 hours later, at Kingston, Butts went off for 10 first quarter points and finished with 22 to lead all scorers as the Lady Highlanders again challenged but came up short.

Butts’ response to the challenge her coach laid before her is just one reason why the Lady Highlanders are making strides. And how much more Scott High can improve between now and the end of the season might well depend on how far Butts and her fellow senior, Callie Carson, can carry their team.

Carson, like Butts, has been challenged by her coach. And she’s had big moments. In Friday’s game against Cosby, Carson scored a season-high 25 points.

So far, Scott hasn’t seen Carson and Butts have big nights on the same night on the offensive end. And offense, overall, has been the Lady Highlanders’ achilles heel this season.

Because Butts and Carson are easily the most experienced players on the Lady Highlander squad, they have to be where the offense comes from. A number of other players have shown the ability to do big things — Annalyne Woodward is improving on the post, wing Julie Lewallen knocked down a winning 3-point shot at Wartburg, Bryanna Doran can hit tough shots from just about anywhere, and a couple of freshmen have shown promise — but the consistency isn’t there yet.

If you watch Scott compete, you wouldn’t know this is a one-win basketball team. The Lady Highlanders got that elusive first win at Wartburg back in early December. Then came covid and they played just one more time (a 20-point loss at Pigeon Forge) before having to take a month off. Their first game back was the disastrous performance at Cosby, but the two games since then — against Cosby and Kingston — have shown promise (even though the Kingston game on Saturday ended in an 18-point loss).

This is a Lady Highlander team that lost to Oneida by 45 points on their home floor back in November. That game was not competitive in any sense of the word. But the Scott High team that took Cosby to the wire last week isn’t the same team that faced Oneida. The jerseys were the same, the faces were the same, but it was a more seasoned basketball team — one that is growing and improving.

It’s going to be a slow process for Scott High. But it’s all about the progress that’s being made, and the foundation that’s being put down for the future. In terms of wins, just about anyone — including Wright and his staff — would’ve hoped for more than one at this point. But in terms of the progress being made, how far they’ve come from where they were in November, this Lady Highlander team may be just about on schedule. And don’t lose sight of the impact of covid. The virus has impacted every high school team, but losing summer camps and the games that have been canceled is an especially tough blow for a team with a brand-new head coach and so many players who are brand-new to the varsity level. You have to figure that, with the benefit of summer camps and a full slate of games, this Scott team would be well ahead of where it’s at.

3.) Oneida Indians — What can you say about Oneida that hasn’t already been written? This is a good basketball team. It’s a team that expected to be good, and the Indians have lived up to the hype thus far.

When last season ended, Oneida had found a groove and was playing as well as any team in the State of Tennessee. Some of us thought Oneida might at least get to the state championship game in Murfreesboro, where the Indians would have met top-ranked Booker T. Washington.

Covid forced the cancelation of the state tournament, and we never got to find out if Oneida could beat East Robertson and Clay County, let alone compete with Booker T. Washington. But with so many players coming back, the Indians fully expected to be right back in Murfreesboro again — and just making it was no longer going to be enough.

Is this Oneida team good enough to win a state championship? In a word … yes.

Senior Nathan Bowling is playing the best basketball of his career. Fellow senior Kolby Morgan is showing why his coach and many others felt he was snubbed when he didn’t get named to the all-state team last year. Sophomore Jeric Huling continues to show that he’s the next star in the making at Oneida. And the supporting cast is doing all the things you would ask them to do.

The Indians had won 20 consecutive games, dating back to last season, before stumbling against York Institute last week. That game wasn’t even close. To be fair, Oneida was without Bowling in that game; he continues to nurse an ankle injury. But, to be fair, the Dragons would have probably won, anyway.

But York is a Class AA team. Oneida isn’t going to meet the Dragons in a game that matters. What matters is the way the Indians are taking care of their business in district play. Those games count for real.

So far, Oneida has coasted, even without Bowling. We’ll get our first real test of how much better this Indian squad is than the rest of the district on Tuesday, when Harriman visits OHS Gymnasium.

If there is a concern, it is that Oneida hasn’t had an opportunity to play much true competition — besides York — thus far this season. Covid cost the Indians a couple of games against Scott High and a game against Clay County, and they don’t have another marquee opponent on the schedule outside of district play.

That means Oneida could roll into a tough substate game further down the line without really having been tested, aside from the games against York. That’s not to say every game has been a blowout; Sunbright took Oneida to the wire in its first game, back on Dec. 1, and Oliver Springs played the Indians surprisingly close — as did Wartburg. But there hasn’t been a tight game that’s come down to the wire since that 49-47 win at Sunbright. As a coach, sometimes you don’t know how your team is going to respond in a situation like that until they’re in a situation like that.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, if and when that situation does arise. But, meanwhile, there appears to be no reason to think this season won’t end with Oneida exactly where it expected to be when it started — and that’s in Murfreesboro.

4.) Scott Highlanders — Clearly, Scott High misses Logan Goodman.

Not that anyone thought the Highlanders wouldn’t miss Goodman. You simply don’t replace someone who can shoot the ball like Goodman, who can score 20 points on any given night like Goodman.

But it’s more than just the 20 points per game that the Highlanders are missing. Goodman was such a consistent scoring threat that defenses couldn’t concentrate on Trey Morrow like they might otherwise prefer. To overplay Morrow was to risk a dagger from Goodman.

In Saturday’s game against Kingston, when the Highlanders needed a desperation bucket after a bogus foul call gave the Yellow Jackets go-ahead free throws with 2.8 seconds remaining, Kingston had three defenders around Morrow on the last shot. That wouldn’t have happened — couldn’t have happened — a year ago, when Goodman was on the floor.

And, yet, we haven’t seen enough of this season to know exactly how much losing Goodman is ultimately going to impact this team.

Maybe that seems strange to say, since we’re heading into mid January. But this is a Scott High team that looked good early, in wins against Sevier County, Webb, Monterey and Wartburg.

Then came a stretch that saw Scott lose three consecutive games over a period of several weeks, with covid interruptions aplenty. Granted, all three losses were against good teams — Fulton, Catholic and Cosby. But it was the nature of the losses that was surprising.

The Highlanders lost to the Falcons by 18. That was a little numbing because Fulton probably isn’t the best team in District 4-AA this season … and, yet, the Falcons are a team the Highlanders will have to be able to beat if they’re going to compete for the district title, which is obviously their goal. And the game really wasn’t as close as it ended; Fulton led by more than 30 at one point in the fourth quarter.

The Cosby game deserved an asterisk because of Morrow’s foul troubles — the ones he earned and the one he didn’t — that kept him out of the game most of the time. But could Scott have beaten the Eagles even if Morrow had played 32 minutes? That’s questionable. Cosby standout Trey Johnson was simply unstoppable — scoring 37 points — and the Eagles won by 23.

But 72 hours later, Scott got an opportunity to exorcise some frustrations against the Eagles, and did so. The Highlanders defeated Cosby by 33 in the rematch, limiting Johnson to 12 points while Morrow went off for 39.

Then, in Saturday’s game at Kingston, the Highlanders played well enough to win before losing, 54-52. That might not seem like much, since Kingston has traditionally been in the No. 4 or No. 5 spot since District 4-AA was formed. But this Kingston team is good. The Yellow Jackets defeated Fulton by double-digits and may well be the team to beat (though Alcoa will probably prove that wrong).

All in all, Scott’s last two games have given the appearance that this team is rounding into form as a team that can compete for the district championship.

Coach Jordan Jeffers was reticent to say before the season that his 2020-2021 squad would be better than last year’s team. Because, of course, the loss of Goodman. But he said the ceiling is higher if potential was realized. That potential depended on several players being able to increase their offensive production.

So far, that hasn’t happened, and that’s why Scott struggled a bit in December. Morrow has been Morrow — he’s going to be a consensus all-state selection again this season and is a candidate for the Class AA Mr. Basketball award — but there hasn’t been a lot of consistency on the offensive end aside from his production. Several players have shown the ability to have big games, including seniors Cash Tucker and Eli Storey, and junior Luke West. And, at Cosby, sophomore Grey Todd finished with a career-high 11 points as he continues to mold into the contributor that Jeffers hoped he would be in just his second season.

The key at this point for Scott High is going to be finding consistency on the offensive end. It’s a Highlander team that has just as much potential as it did to start the season, but defenses are keying on Morrow more and more as the season progresses. As a team, Scott High’s outside shooting percentage hasn’t been high enough to this point to make up for losing Goodman. How big a threat this Scott team is in the postseason will depend on the kind of offensive consistency that develops in the next four weeks.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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