By Carey Phillips
Smoky Mountain’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will open their seasons Tuesday at home against Tuscola
The JV men will start at 5 p.m. followed by the varsity women and varsity men. There will be no JV women’s game.
The Lady Mustangs have held scrimmages with Rabun County, Georgia and Highlands.
The men have just gotten the entire team together this week after the end of football season. They have scrimmaged Highlands and will scrimmage at West Henderson at 5 p.m. today (Thursday).
“We had the first scrimmage after only three days of practice,” Coach Ollin Dunford said of his women’s team. “We played against a team (Rabun Gap) that ran a very intense defense against us, and they forced turnovers. On a positive note for us, that enhanced my ability to coach them on what I need them to do and how I need them to do it.”
He said it showed the players the importance of making good decisions, dribbling through pressure and making crisp passes.
“I think they took some of our drills a little more seriously after that,” Dunford said. “Even though they outscored us, I found some positive things to work from.”
The team performed better last week at Highlands.
“Highlands is a good shooting team so it was a good test for us,” Dunford said. “They also tried pressure defense. We were able to adjust and start to defy what they were trying to do to us.”
With a break of almost two weeks between the second scrimmage and the regular season, Dunford has time to work on numerous aspects of the game in practice.
“We want to play aggressive defense too,” the coach said. “Now I can show them what it did when teams played that kind of defense. I want them to be just as excited about playing defense as they are on offense. We will work on perfecting that. Our defense is going to dictate our offense. I want them to enjoy that.”
Junior Natalie Parris is back after making all-conference last year on a 16-11 team that was co-champions of the Mountain Six Conference and reached the third round of the state playoffs. Another junior, Kyra Fowler, was all-conference as a freshman. She remains sidelined with a hip injury.
Senior returnees are Kevonna Tushka, Lucy McRae, Aubrie Miller and Erin Moore. Another senior, Tamera Bennett, returns to the program after playing JVs as a freshman and sophomore.
Junior Melanie Hoyle returns. Juniors up from the JVs are Addison Buchanan, Ashton Buchanan, Hannah Huddleston, Allison Macke and Julianna Welch.
“I’m extremely excited about the juniors who have joined the program coming up from the JVs,” Dunford said. “I think they will bring energy to the table.”
The only underclassman on the roster is freshman Macy Wike.
“I kept her because I’m excited about the potential she is going to bring to the program,” Dunford said.
Last year marked the fifth straight season that the Lady Mustangs won at least a share of the conference title. Dunford expects the Mountain Six Conference to be very competitive this year.
“At this point I feel Franklin is probably going to be our best challenge with Brevard right behind them,” he said. “We won’t turn our heads to anyone as far as I’m concerned.”
While Dunford has been with the program since 2005-06 as JV coach and/or a varsity assistant, last season was his first as head coach. He said that required some adjustments, and he is more comfortable in the role now.
“With last year being my first as head coach and the returnees that we had, I felt compelled to keep a lot of things the same because that’s what they knew,” the coach said. “I wanted to enhance those strengths, but that put me in a situation where I had to adjust. This year it’s all my way. I’m instilling more of me into the team. I’ve got the new players so it’s allowing me to do that.”
Jerrod Boone returns as varsity assistant coach and Jason Melvin is back as head JV coach. Marissa Ellsworth, a former player, will serve as JV assistant.
“We welcome her with open arms back to the program,” Dunford said.
Even though players from football weren’t available, Coach Adam Phillips was pleased with how his men’s team looked last week against Highlands.
“I was very pleased statistically,” he said. “I thought we did very well on the boards and played very hard defensively. Our shooting percentage wasn’t great early on, but it balanced out the last three quarters.”
He is looking forward to having all of his players together for the scrimmage at West.
“The biggest thing is to get our feet wet with everybody finally getting back,” Phillips said. “We want to get up and down the court and play extremely hard.”
Returnees who have been out from the first day include seniors Michael Todd, Conner Seagraves and Lee Macaulay. Senior Zeb Sink returns and joined the team last week after soccer season ended. Returning football players who came out this week include seniors Mitch Wike, Clayton Frady and Parker Flynn.
Wike was all-conference last year on a 16-9 team.
A complete roster was not available at the Herald sports deadline.
“I feel really good about the season,” Phillips said. “I think we have a great nucleus coming back. The guys coming back accomplished so much in the fall (conference titles in football and soccer), and that will carry over to the winter. I’m excited to see it come together.”
Phillips has been pleased with practice even though he was short-handed until this week.
“Practice has been really good, especially with the JV and varsity mixed in together,” he said. “They have responded very well. We have been able to teach a lot.”
The coach is looking for a competitive Mountain Six Conference race with defending champion Hendersonville among the favorites.
“Until somebody knocks them off, you’ve got to look at Hendersonville,” he said. “They are going to be good. They have three guards back and a good freshman coming in. Franklin is going to be very big, and I think Pisgah is also going to be good.”
The coaching staff returns intact. Jeremy Cauley will be varsity assistant. Tyler Mulligan will coach the JVs and be assisted by Stephen Parsons.
The schedule, which includes some changes from the one previously announced, is as follows:
Nov. 26 – Tuscola.
Dec. 3 – at Erwin; 6 – at Madison; 7 – Roberson; 11 – at Roberson; 12 – Madison; 17 – Swain; 20 – at Robbinsville; 30 – Rabun County, Georgia; 31 – North Henderson.
Jan. 3 – Robbinsville; 7 – at Pisgah; 10 – Hendersonville; 13 – at Swain; 15 – at Tuscola; 17 – at East Henderson; 21 – Franklin; 24 – Pisgah; 28 – at Brevard; 31 – at Hendersonville.
Feb. 4 – Brevard; 7 – East Henderson; 11 – at Franklin.