McMinn County’s boys face plenty of unknowns this basketball season – and plenty of opportunity.
In a District 5-AAA that Coach Ed Clendenen believes is easily the most balanced from top to bottom he’s seen in a while, a Cherokees squad with many new faces in new roles has a chance to be in the mix for a high finish or even a championship.
How well the Tribe does for 2018-2019, according to Clendenen, will depend on its performance from night to night.
“It’s going to be a war and a struggle every night. There’s not anybody in our district who I know we’re going to go play and win,” Clendenen said. “But by the same token, there’s not anybody in our district this year who I feel like we’re going to go play and I know we’re not going to win. And I couldn’t say that in these first couple of years. And I really like that feeling, that if we play well, we’re going to have a chance to win. It’s just going to be up to us to make sure we get the job done.”
The good news personnel-wise is that in his fourth year guiding McMinn’s boys, this year’s squad is “by far the deepest” Clendenen has had so far. The Tribe is still in the process of figuring out its varsity roster, starters and rotation, which could all be subject to change during the season, too.
“I feel like we can play 10 to 12 every night and not lose a thing,” Clendenen said. “And hopefully that’s what we’re going to try to do. We’re excited about our depth, and people have been working to get playing time. It’s going to be trouble trying to find playing time for everybody, but at the same time that’s a good problem.”
On the other hand, the Cherokees’ biggest question mark may be who can step up and take over a game in crunch time the way the graduated Taurean Jones did. Jones scored more than 1,300 points in his career at McMinn and especially had a knack for knocking down big shots and free throws.
“Taurean was very good particularly at the end of ball games, and that is a question mark for us right now about who is wanting to do that,” Clendenen said. “Who is going to step up and make the big free throws.”
Of course, if more than one player this season emerges as being capable of rising to the occasion in tight contests, all the better.
“But I think we can be even more dangerous because I think it will be more by committee and more balanced, so you won’t be able to focus on just one person,” Clendenen said. “If one person is having an off night, then we’re going to have some others to pick up the slack better than what we’ve had in the past.”
How well McMinn does could also come down to getting “a little lucky.”
“I’ve had a lot of good teams that didn’t have any luck, and then I’ve had some good teams that have had some real good luck,” Clendenen said. “There’s not a whole lot that separates them sometimes. Just a break here or there or a play here or there. Shot doesn’t go in for the other team. There’s a lot of things that happen through the year. We just want to be the best that we can be, and then wins and losses will take care of itself, as long as we keep working and improving and be the best we can be.”
Clendenen likes the six seniors he has, headlined by All-District 5-AAA honoree Jacob Elkins. Landon Wilson, another returning starter, also turned up his play toward the end of last season.
“We have a very good senior class. We’ve had good players and we’ve had good leaders, and this class is probably the closest to putting both together all the way through,” Clendenen said. “And I’m really looking forward to what all they can get accomplished.”
Brayden Runyan, whom Clendenen called a “very heady player,” will be key in stepping up for three-year starter at point guard Sam Hammonds. Cylas Torbett is one of the team’s best shooters, and Jordan McClure and Emery Peterson are also back on the basketball court for their senior seasons to provide quality depth.
The junior class is one of the Tribe’s deepest, with nine players vying for varsity spots and playing time. Nelan Evans was a starter for much of last season at the wing, and Clendenen calls him “our best defender, no doubt.” Colby Brown, who got some starts in the post last year, has improved his shooting, according to Clendenen, and the versatile Jalen Sharp can be expected to fill in a number of roles and provide a leadership presence.
Posts Jasaun Wooden and Peyton Buckner, point guards Preston Jones and Zavion Bradley and wings Jyren Hammonds and Diamond McClure are all juniors who could contribute.
Perhaps even deeper is the Cherokees’ sophomore class, which is 13 players strong. Clendenen is expecting big things out of big post Tyler Peel.
“He can be as good as he wants to be, and I think he’s about to decide he wants to be pretty good,” Clendenen said of Peel.
Jalen Hunt, who has starred on the football field the past two seasons, is making his return to basketball after taking his freshman year off from it.
“I’m really, really excited just because he’s just a high-motor, high-character kid,” Clendenen said of Hunt. “He can really get down and guard. He’s going help us there a lot. He just brings a lot of energy and personality to our team, and he’s a pleasure to have.”
Versatile post/wing Donovan Daniel and enthusiastic Jaylan James, who dressed for varsity the latter half of their freshman seasons, are players Clendenen said have improved and could also contribute. Sharpshooter Andrew Beavers, who has sharpened his defense and ballhandling, could also factor into the rotation, as well as hustling post Jordan Lane and big-bodied inside presence Matthew Watson.
Rounding out the sophomore class are Hayden Frank, Parker Bebb, Josh Johnson and Manav Patel. Will Gentry, a transfer from McMinn Central, is ineligible for varsity this season but could be a major factor at point in future seasons.
Clendenen said “probably” no freshmen will be on varsity this season, but Ty Runyan, Aiden Johnson, Noah Graybeal, Jyrel Arnwine, Matt Pledge and Jackub Wilcox are among those who will play junior varsity as well as on the freshman team.
McMinn’s varsity season begins with a pair of home games against the region’s opposite District 6-AAA, hosting Rhea County on Tuesday, Nov. 13, and White County on Friday, Nov. 16. Following that are games against District 5-AA opponents Sequoyah and Meigs County, then a weekend in the Hardin Valley Thanksgiving tournament. Coming back from the holiday on Tuesday, Nov. 27, is a clash with cross-creek rival McMinn Central at home.
Most notable is the Cherokees’ unbalanced schedule between games at home and on the road. McMinn plays eight of its first 10 games at home, all before the New Year. After 2019 rings in, the Tribe hosts Walker Valley on Jan. 4, but then plays seven straight away games, a road trip that lasts all the way through the rest of January.
But Clendenen noted that this year’s schedule is a reverse of last season’s, when the road games were all stacked before the holiday break. And he said there are potential positives to being loaded with road games on the back end of the schedule.
“(It) may not be a bad thing for us as we gain experience and confidence and all,” Clendenen said. “I usually like to play people on the road the first time and try to steal one, but this way maybe we can get a little more confident and get our legs up underneath us playing at home. And you become more used to (playing on the road).”