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The McMinn County girls enter basketball season facing a significant degree of uncertainty.

First, there are the COVID-19-related issues that every basketball program has had to deal with in the preseason. But compounding that for the Lady Cherokees is their task of making up for the graduation of six seniors from last year, four of whom were starters.

“I’d feel a lot better — not that I feel bad — but you’d feel a lot better going into your first game if you hadn’t lost your six seniors and four starters from last year,” said Tim McPhail, who is set to begin his 14th season as the Lady Tribe head coach. “But it is what it is.”

And thus one of the unanswered questions heading into McMinn’s season opener 3 p.m. Saturday at home against Brainerd is who is even going to be on the floor when the Lady Cherokees tip off.

“So not only do you have to fill those (starting) roles, but then whoever is stepping into those starting positions, you have to fill the bench play coming out,” McPhail said. “So we’re still searching, we’re still looking. If we had to start today, I couldn’t tell you a starting lineup, I couldn’t tell you who’s coming in off the bench. We’re still trying to figure that out.”

And between the coronavirus and some preseason injury issues, McPhail said McMinn still hasn’t had a practice with everyone on the team present.

“It’s really just the unknown,” McPhail said. “You don’t know from day to day who’s going to be at your practice. We have not, since we started, had a full practice with everybody who is on the team there.”

And with COVID-19 having canceled summer basketball camps, and the TSSAA prohibiting all preseason scrimmages and jamborees, the Lady Cherokees find themselves having to scramble to find their new starters and key reserves.

“Typically at this point, as far as maybe somewhat of an idea of a starting lineup, you kind of know who you’re going to depend on coming off the bench,” McPhail said. “Those are the things that you figure out in the summer at camp, and we probably should have had one playday up to this point. That’s been another element. It’s almost like you’re starting at ground zero, and you’ve got two weeks before you’re playing, and that’s been really tough.”

Making the task a bit less daunting may be that the lone returning starter is sophomore point guard Peytyn Oliver, who earned All-District 5-AAA honors last year as a freshman and was one of the top four vote-earners for the district Most Valuable Player honors.

“It’s always good when you have somebody coming back that you know what you’re going to get out of her night in and night out,” McPhail said of Oliver.

Also returning after significant minutes off the bench last year are juniors Addie Smith, whom McPhail said played “starter-like minutes” last year, and Jada Mack, who emerged late last season as a promising post presence.

“It’s not like we’re going out there with kids who have never stepped foot on the floor and played at the varsity level,” McPhail said. “It’s just when you lose four starters, you lose a lot of minutes and you lose a lot of leadership from that aspect.”

And this year’s two seniors, Aubrey Pickel and Ansley Oliver, have stepped up from a leadership standpoint, according to McPhail, as well as improved their game enough to contribute significantly this season.

“Their game has improved tremendously from last year,” McPhail said. “As far as kids who you think should be ready to step in and help in whatever situation and whatever role it ends up being for those two, I think they’re going to be ready when the season starts.”

Rounding out the junior class are Allison Hansford, whom McPhail is expecting quality minutes from this year, and Konstantina Papaioannou, whom McPhail said has “proven here pretty early that she’s going to be able to help us in some respect.”

Another junior, post Jill Daniels, is currently still out after having missed all of last year with hip surgeries, but McPhail is hopeful she can return this season.

The other two sophomores are Brooklyn Stinnett and Jazmine Moses, both of whom McPhail said have come on strong in the preseason. Stinnett played some minutes as a freshman last year.

Three freshmen are on varsity this year: Aubrey Gonzalez, Katie Elliott and Ama Grimmett.

“I certainly wouldn’t have put them on varsity if I didn’t think they had that opportunity and that potential to help us,” McPhail said of his freshmen. “They’re going to be three really good players by the time their senior year rolls around, and I like what I see out of them as freshmen right now.”

McMinn was voted third in the preseason district polls, behind Bradley Central at No. 1 and Cleveland at No. 2. Bradley won the Class AAA state championship two years ago and also made the state tournament last year. Walker Valley was fourth in one poll and tied with McMinn for third in another, and then the rest of the polls proceeded, in order, as East Hamilton, Soddy-Daisy and Ooltewah.

“Bottom line is, losing what we did last year, we’ve got a lot to prove as far as competing with a Bradley, with a Cleveland, who have lost some kids, but with what they have coming back, I know they are both going to be pretty strong,” McPhail said. “Do I believe we can compete? I do. I believe we can compete and we’ll see how the chips fall.”

The Lady Cherokees have already faced uncertainty this preseason. Thanks to COVID-19 protocols, that uncertainty could come up during games this season, too.

“I think the hardest thing that not only us but everybody is going to have to deal with is, you don’t know night in and night out who you’re going to be playing with,” McPhail said. “And that’s one of the things I’ve told all of the girls, even the ones who aren’t on varsity. I said you’ve got to be ready, because you might be getting the call because we’ve got seven kids out.”

That uncertainty extends to McMinn’s schedule, too. The Lady Tribe already had its original season opener against Rhea County canceled, and a game scheduled against Harpeth Hall in December was also wiped.

Saturday’s opener against Brainerd is a new addition announced earlier this week, as is a home game Tuesday against Kingston. The Lady Cherokees play Heritage and Maryville in a Thanksgiving tournament at Heritage High School, and other non-district opponents include McMinn Central, Meigs County, Alcoa and White County. They will also play in the Mistletoe Madness tournament in Georgia over the winter break.

“I hope to be able to play most of our games,” McPhail said. “We’ve already had to cancel two. When you get into the canceling games, obviously our district games come first, and we talked about at our meeting that we’ve got to play those games at all costs.”

One thing McPhail is sure of amid all the uncertainty, however: He enjoys coaching this group of Lady Cherokees.

“They’re easy to coach, they’re fun to coach, and we’ve had two good weeks of practice,” McPhail said. “And I hope that it continues with their attitude and their effort out there as far as trying to get better. It’s a very coachable group.”

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