Photo: Rising senior Ashley Morgan of Glencoe (left) and rising junior Sydney Yancey of Southside (right) participated in summer high school basketball play dates. (Gary Wells/Messenger file photo)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Although the high school football season is visible on the horizon, several local high school basketball teams participated in summer play dates over the past few weeks. Area coaches used these scrimmages to gauge the overall progress of their squads while priming younger players for their first varsity seasons.
The Gadsden City boys competed in several split quad scrimmages with a combination of varsity and junior varsity players. Assistant head coach Steve Stewart said that the sophomore and junior class will make up the bulk of the 2019-20 Titans.
“We had a lot of questions marks, so [GCHS head] coach [Reginald] Huff wanted to do some different things,” said Stewart. “We feel that we’ll be a really good shooting team, and if we can keep them healthy, we’ll have several football guys that we’ll be depending on, like DeMarcus Macon, Rod Orr, Phillip Hunter and Jayden Lawson. And we have Trey Wood, who is a good a talent as we’ve had. Personally, I like our chances going into this year better than I did going in last year. I do know that we’ll be fun to watch.”
Stewart added that fans should expect to see more full-court pressure this season.
“I look for us to look more like our earlier Gadsden City and Litchfield teams in that area, in that we have the athletes to do a lot of pressing.”
Etowah girls coach Blake Hudson appreciated his team’s effort in a scrimmage against Glencoe.
“We worked on our new offenses against their defense and vice versa. For a team as good as Glencoe is, I thought that we hung with them. There were times when [Glencoe] scored, but in no way did they eat us alive. I was really impressed, and it gave us some big excitement for the coming year.”
Hudson was pleased with the performance of his younger players in particular
“We’re going to sophomore and freshmen heavy, and those girls have stepped up and answered the call so far. They’ve worked hard in the summer workouts and have been very receptive to the new offensive and defensive schemes we’re putting in. If these girls continue to buy in like they have so far, we’re going to be tough to reckon with.”
With eight players graduated from the Etowah boys’ 2018-19 Northeast Regional Tournament finalist squad, head coach James Graves wished to see how several of his youngsters responded to game action. He liked what he saw as his Blue Devils went up against Birmingham-area powerhouses Parker, Carver, Gardendale and Homewood along with Springville, St. Clair County, Pell City, Oxford, Albertville, Madison Academy and Dade County, Ga.
“I pulled about four kids up [to varsity] after Christmas last year, so they already got their feet wet and should be able to go. We lost a lot of size, so if we can rebound, we’ll be right back in the mix. There’s no doubt about it.”
Graves’ biggest concern over the past few seasons was the physical state of his football-playing players. The EHS football team made it to the Class 5A state quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018, setting back the players’ transition from football shape to basketball shape.
Summer play dates – page 2B
“I think I have only two or three kids on the varsity who don’t play football, so I’ll on pins and needles about how beat up they’ll be. But that’s the nature of the beast at Etowah, and I always encourage our kids to play other sports and help our school win in everything.”
Along with traditional games, the Southside girls participated in several “stop and teach” play dates during which coaches halt the game in order to instruct players. The Lady Panthers went up against Fyffe, Albertville and Spring Garden, among others.
“I prefer that type of play date, because you really get a chance to improve in certain areas,” said coach Kim Nails. “We can work on something against an opponent but we can stop and correct, and I think the kids really benefit from that. It shows us what we need to work on going into the season. I wish the [play dates] were later in the summer, but it’s fun for the kids and a good experience.”
The Southside boys competed in play dates at Wallace State-Hanceville, Samford University and Auburn University against Albertville, Lauderdale County, Deshler, Muscle Shoals, Fairview, Pelham, James Clemens, Moody, Andalusia, Montgomery Academy, Good Hope, Bayside Academy, Howard (Ga.) High School and Holy Innocent of Atlanta, Ga.
“We still have a relatively young team, and we went into the summer hoping to build the culture of our program rather than focusing on winning or losing games,” said coach Chad Holderfield. “Our goals were to get guys to play hard and play together all the time and be good teammates. I felt were really grew in those areas, and on top of that, we won some ball games. We try to schedule teams that we won’t see in the regular season and who will provide some good competition with different styles of play. I thought it was a great learning experience for our kids.”
“Things went pretty much the way they normally do [at summer play dates]; you make sure everyone gets to play a lot and get some game experience,” said Sardis boys coach Van Owens. “We’ll be senior-heavy this season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do. Most of the seniors play three sports, so hopefully they’ll have a good year athletically all-year round.”
The Hokes Bluff girls faced some stiff summer competition against the likes of Lauderdale County, Pell City, Rogers, Deshler, Sand Rock, Wilson, Oxford and Jacksonville. Head coach Jason Shields noted that his 2019-20 Lady Eagles are fundamentally sound but not quite as athletic as in the past.
“We’re not a pressing team and we won’t get a lot of easy buckets, so we have to work to find ways to score. But these girls are as fun to coach as any group I’ve had and are trying to do the things we’re showing them. We were young last year with two 10th grade guards, and I think we’ll be a little better this time around.”
Although he saw progress during the su-mmer play dates, Hokes Bluff boys coach Jeff Noah said that his 2019-20 Eagles have a long way to go considering that only four players have varsity experience. Hokes Bluff’s play date opponents included Spring Garden, Alexandria, Springville, Piedmont and Sand Rock.
“Whether it was because of injuries or sickness or other things happening, we didn’t have the while team [available] in any of the play dates. Other teams might have been, but we were not in shape to play three basketball games a day for two straight days.
“But we played some pretty good teams, and some of our younger kids showed that they might be ready to play some varsity basketball for us. We also built a little bit of chemistry, which is important, and we made improvements in several areas. I do think we’ll be competitive in most games and that we’ll have kids who’ll play very hard and unselfish.”
Noah appreciated the work of assistant coaches Jason Presley sand Ryan Smith while Noah was recovering from recent shoulder surgery.
“Both those guys have been head coaches, and if hadn’t been for them being able to teach and demonstrate stuff, I’d have been in a world of hurt.”
The Glencoe girls went 13-1 in summer action, with the Lady Yellow Jackets’ only loss coming at the hands of a 2018-19 state semifinalist out of Ohio.
“You don’t win championships in the summer, but I thought that we played well against some pretty good teams,” said head coach Daniel Cook.
With four out of five starters and nine seniors returning from last year’s Northeast Regional runner-up team, Cook did not change much in the way of schemes and strategy during the play dates.
“We pretty much know what we’re doing. With as many upperclassmen as we’ve got, you kind of expect to have a little bit of a leg up against most of the people you play.”
Jason Gilley loaded his Glencoe boys with 16 dates, including action against Guntersville, Asbury, Marshall Christian and Valley Head. The Yellow Jackets’ lone returning starter from last season recently underwent back surgery, so Gilley used a heavy dose of youngsters.
“We pretty much gradated every starter, so we gave a lot of kids a lot of playing time so we could see who would be able to help us this year. I did feel that we improved with each game we played. We’re going to be very small size-wise, but this may be one of the quickest groups I’ve had, so we may give some teams trouble.
“Our usual game plan will be to use the press and make the game as ugly as we possibly can. But these kids get after it and do what we ask them to do. The biggest thing is having these kids gain a little bit of confidence when they haven’t played at the varsity level. It’s a slow process of getting there, and we’ve got a long way to go.”
The Westbrook girls hosted a play date with West End, Sardis and Plainview. First-year coach Holly Ostendorf liked what she saw from her Lady Warriors.
“I think the girls did great. We were really young last year with predominantly eight graders, so all the girls are a little bit older. I like this group’s dedication right now. They’re in the weight room three times a week, and I never have to look for anybody.”
Westbrook boys coach Matt Dickey said his team was bit by the injury bug during the play dates but managed to get in games against Chelsea, Pell City, North Sand Mountain, Asbury, Weaver and Springville.
“Overall, I thought we looked good. Offensively, we did some really good things in terms of getting to the basket and we finished well on the inside. We struggled a little but in protecting the basketball, but that happens in the summer when you’re playing three or four games in one day. We definitely have to make sure that we’re well-conditioned for the season.”
Dickey acknowledged that the Warriors must make up for the graduation of starting forwards P.J. Wells and Jackson Luttrell, both of whom will play football this fall at Jacksonville State.
“We’ll certainly miss their physicality and ability to defend bigger guys, but I was really impressed with how (junior) Greyson Wright and (freshman) Cade Phillips responded when we threw them in there [during the play dates]. They give us a longer and leaner look on the inside. They can both shoot and handle the ball pretty well, and it should help us on defense with their ability to contest shots around the rim.
“Summer is the time where you’re working on skill development and implementing some offensive and defensive things. It’s only my third year, so they’re still learning what we’re trying to do.”
The Coosa Christian girls traveled to the University of North Alabama and Georgia State and hosted Sardis and West End.
“We played three [Class] 7A teams at Georgia State and competed with all three of them,” said head coach Jayme Hollingsworth. “Sardis and West End gave us some good competition and both of those teams seemed to get a lot out of it. We’ll have a lot of youngsters who will either start for us or be the first off the bench, and it was good that they got some game experience. If this team keeps coming together, I think it could be one of the best years that we’ve had so far.”
Editor’s note: Several local basketball teams did not participate in summemr play dates.