ENGLEWOOD — What was expected to be a senior-laden McMinn Central girls’ basketball team has become less so as the season nears.
But despite becoming a younger squad overall than Coach Johnny Morgan had anticipated, the Chargerettes, from the remaining seniors on down to the freshmen, aren’t short on experience.
One senior, Jordan Coleman, sustained an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear and will be out for the season. Another senior, Emilee Wampler, and lone projected junior Kaylyn Knox decided not to come out for basketball after finishing up their soccer seasons. Coleman and Wampler were projected starters, which would’ve made for the first all-senior staring five Morgan said he could remember entering his 41st season.
“So we went from five senior starters to right now three senior starters and either two sophomores or two freshmen,” said Morgan, who begins the 2018-2019 season with a 928-342 career record. “But the people, even the freshmen and sophomores, they’ve all played a million hours of basketball. So it’s not like they’re inexperienced.”
The three remaining active seniors, Carlie Runyan, Melia Baker and Anika Smith, are all returning starters from last season. Runyan and Baker have played extensive minutes since they were freshmen, and Smith since a sophomore. The seniors are looking to make a return to the TSSAA state tournament for the first time since their freshman years.
“Carlie and Melia have played all four years, have played in the state tournament and contributed in the state tournament to wins,” Morgan said. “And I remember back when Carlie was a freshman, and then we’re in the state tournament, and right in front of our bench she hits a big three, and it’s a four- or five-point game in the fourth quarter.”
After the senior class is a group of four sophomores: Carsi Beaty, Reese Belcher, Constance Osborne and Madison Hensley.
“Carsi Beaty and Reese Belcher, they played last year, and even Constance Osborne when we had only seven players going to Sequoyah last year,” said Morgan, referring to a 35-point road win in which the Chargerettes had several sick or injured. “Constance and Reese as freshmen had to come in and play, and they got really valuable minutes there. And I feel confident in those.”
Rounding out the varsity roster of 11 active players is the four-member freshman class of Kara Crabtree, Makinlee Buckner, Carlee Rule and Kellan Baker — and Morgan said they will play.
“This year, people ask me what I think about this year and how will we do, and all that kind of stuff, and I said, ‘Well, about three minutes into the first game, you’ll see four freshmen in the game, probably,’” Morgan said. “So we’re not going to wait around for them to grow up and wait around to see if they’re capable of playing. We’re going to throw them in there early and you can play or you can’t play. And if you can’t play, then you’re going to have to get there in a couple of weeks because we’ve got district games.
“All four of them have played AAU ball together and have been successful, and all four of them played a lot of soccer this year. They’re all very athletic, and playing soccer they’ve got to be tough mentally and physically, so those four freshmen are all going to have good careers.”
Buckner and Rule were members of a national championship team in AAU this past summer, an example of the basketball experience even the freshman class brings to the Chargerettes this season.
“Those freshmen, you may think, ‘Well, they’ve never played a high school game,’ but they play AAU a lot of times for (Assistant Coach) Christy Buckner, and she’s going to run the same thing that we run,” Morgan said. “So you’ve got four freshmen who will have to have some minutes this year, they’ll just have to. But they’ve run this same offense and defense for two, three or four years now. So it’s not like they have to pick up right now.
“You’re really not teaching them anything new, you’re just reviewing. So I’m not concerned about as far as being young. We’ve played with young players before. And they’re the best players in school.”
The younger Chargerettes’ experience will be tested quickly with a schedule that could be as challenging as the program has ever had — even compared to last year’s. Last season, Central got off to a 2-5 start and finished with a 23-11 record, but also won District 5-AA and Region 3-AA championships.
“It could very well be the best schedule that we’ve had, and last year I think that our schedule ranked as good as anybody’s in the state, and this year would be as good as anybody’s in the state,” Morgan said. “That’s part of it, and last year as far as losses, we had more losses last year than we’ve had in 25 years. But we ended up 23-11, which is a good year, but we still had more losses than we’ve had in a long, long time, and ended up winning the district and the region both.”
The Chargerettes begin their season at home Tuesday, Nov. 13, against Gatlinburg-Pittman – which has made the Class AA state tournament the last two years. They follow that on Friday with another home game against an improved Bledsoe County team.
Central will play in the Bradley Central Thanksgiving tournament and the Christmas tournament at Maryville High School, both of them featuring some top-level Class AAA squads every year. The Chargerettes have also picked up a home-and-home with Class AAA state powerhouse Bradley Central and will also play Stone Memorial in another holiday tournament.
“I think from last year to this year, I think, ‘Well, it can’t start out any worse than we did last year, because we were 2-5 at one point,’” Morgan said.
Filling out the non-district part of the schedule tends to be a challenge for Central, and that held true this year, according to Morgan.
“It’s not that we’re trying to boost our schedule, because we always have a good schedule, it’s just the fact that some schools just don’t want to play us,” Morgan said. “And we’ve had teams like Cumberland County that are really good and we played last year, and they wouldn’t play us this year. And people like Pigeon Forge, where we went up there last year, and they wouldn’t return the game this year.”
As for District 5-AA, Morgan expects the Chargerettes and Meigs County to be the teams “that’ll be up there.” He also mentioned Sweetwater, which had a strong finish to last season and even tested the Chargerettes fairly late into the Region 3-AA semifinals, as a top-three opponent to look out for.