By Carey Phillips

Smoky Mountain’s men’s and women’s basketball teams were set to open their seasons with back-to-back games against Mitchell.

With snow possible, a late change moved the first game up a day to Wednesday at the SM gym. Saturday’s game is at Mitchell. There will be no JV women’s game either day.

In the age of COVID-19, there were question marks during the week about whether the games would be played.

Action for the home games was set to start at 4:30 p.m. with the JV men followed by the varsity women and varsity men. The JV men will play at noon Saturday followed by the varsity women and varsity men.

Attendance will be limited to 25 fans for each of the three games with no fans from the visiting team.

That will be the case all season unless Gov. Roy Cooper modifies his limit on indoor gatherings. The latest order, which includes a 10 p.m. curfew, is to expire Friday. Cooper was expected to make an announcement Wednesday after the Herald went to press.

Practices for the SM’s women’s team were halted Tuesday, Dec. 29, when a player tested positive for COVID-19. If all the players and coaches receive a negative test, practice can resume in time for the game to be played.

The Mitchell women are also experiencing COVID issues. They have several players in quarantine following a volleyball player receiving a positive test, according to SM Athletic Director Adam Phillips.

Having no practices for a week could impact how the Lady Mustangs play in the early going, Coach Ollin Dunford said.

“We had a lot of time together virtually where we could teach, and the girls learned a lot,” he said. “We just didn’t get to implement it. We won’t be in shape. I know that’s going to be a factor.”

He said the program’s numbers are down, with 10 players on the varsity and eight on the JVs. He was pleased with how the players who played volleyball worked when they came to basketball practice following volleyball practice.

Another change has been the requirement to wear masks in practices and in games.

“It was tough,” Dunford said of the mask mandate. “We had a session about it. Life is always changing. It’s not just basketball. Life in general is going to hand out things to you. Nobody likes the masks, especially when you are running up and down the court. We’ve learned to get over hurdles. We’re not going to be the only ones out there with masks on. If the other team can do it, we dang sure can.”

The coach and players were disappointed that because of the COVID issues they were unable to scrimmage against Swain last Thursday. It would have given him a chance to work on the new offense he has implemented.

His son, Ollin Dunford II, a former college assistant coach, helped with the new offense over the summer. It’s based on the Princeton offense, which relies heavily on ball movement.

“It’s not so much dribbling but passing,” Coach Dunford said. “You learn to pass the ball consistently and accurately. We bought in. We watched it and learned it, then we started to teach it. It’s been really good.”

Senior Natalie Parris is back after earning all-conference honors last season on a team that went 13-12 and placed fourth (5-5) in the Mountain Six Conference.

Also returning are seniors Allison Macke, Hannah Huddleston, Julianna Welch and Addison Buchanan and sophomore Macy Wike.

Joining the squad are junior Kennedy Stewman, sophomores Aiden Nicholson and Xaila Spencer and freshman Greenlee Flynn.

Dunford said defending conference champion Franklin along with Pisgah should be contenders for the MSC title this year. He noted Brevard was hit hard by graduation.

“I think we will be right in the running,” Dunford said.

Teams will be limited to 14 games, and only the conference champion will automatically qualify for the playoffs.

“It’s a short season,” Dunford said. “We won’t have time to correct a lot of mistakes. We’ve got to be disciplined enough to play every game like it’s our last game. We’ve got to take every game and every practice seriously.”

Coach Adam Phillips is looking forward to seeing how his Mustang men perform.

“Practice is going well,” he said. “The kids have adjusted to the mask mandate. I can’t say enough about our kids and how resilient they have been.”

The Mustangs were 14-11 last season and tied for second in the MSC at 7-3.

“We don’t have a lot of experience coming back,” Phillips said. “Our newcomers have picked up things well. Our four seniors have done a great job of leading. Our kids are chomping at the bit and ready to go.”

Senior Ryan Waliezer is the returnee with the most experience. Also back are seniors Hunter Cabe, Lawson Wike and Chris Wilburn.

The roster includes juniors Brylen Conlin, Max Buchanan and Nacoma Driver, sophomores Ethan Hooper, Brett Richmond and Matthew Brown, and freshman Jed West.

“I feel really good about the season,” Phillips said. “We’re going to be very young so it might take some time to get our feet wet. I’m excited about it. We hope to compete for a conference championship. That’s the way it should be every single year.”

The coach said defending conference champion Hendersonville, with three returning guards, should be among the teams to beat in the league. He added that Franklin returns most of its roster.

“Most everyone in our conference returns a lot of people with the exception of us,” Phillips said.

“I can’t say enough about our kids and our coaches,” he said. “Most of these kids haven’t had any competition since February or March.”

The Mustangs scrimmaged Swain last Thursday.

“It went OK,” Phillips said. “We had a few kids out due to COVID protocol (contact tracing). They played extremely hard. As far as effort goes, I was pleased.”

There will be some changes this year brought on by COVID. Games will no longer start with a jump ball. The home team will begin with the ball, and alternating possessions will go from there. In the event of overtime, a coin toss will determine who has the first possession.

As long as Gov. Cooper’s curfew is in place, JV games played during the week will have a running clock in the first and third quarters, except for the last two minutes, to try to get the games over by 10 p.m. That won’t be necessary for Saturday conference games when JV action will begin at 1 p.m.

The schedule is as follows:

Jan. 7 – Mitchell; 9 – at Mitchell; 13 – Pisgah; 16 – at Hendersonville; 20 – Brevard; 22 – East Henderson; 27 – at Franklin; 30 – at Pisgah.

Feb. 3 – Hendersonville; 5 – at Brevard; 10 – at East Henderson; 13 – Franklin; 16 – conference tournament semifinals at SM; 18 – conference tournament finals at SM.