Given the end, the beginning is either a surprise or it was expected.
Given the history of Unicoi County basketball, “expected” is probably the best explanation.
In the Blue Devils’ final game of 2012-13, a shocking district tournament loss to Happy Valley was a season ender. Players and coaches didn’t digest it easily.
Fast forward to this season, and the Blue Devils haven’t lost in their first nine games — including three games that came down to the wire.
“This group has really played with an edge, and has been hungry this year,” said head coach John English. “Going back to the spring, we started talking immediately about the way the season ended. Certainly there was a hope it motivated them to come back with the right resolve.
“So far they have bounced back the right way. It’s nice to see them experience the success they’ve had early.”
Unicoi’s strong start — which includes solid wins over David Crockett (twice) and Sullivan South — has been built on the defensive end of the court. The Blue Devils have allowed less than 50 points in every game except two, and those were 52 and 50.
“The No. 1 focus has been defense,” said English. “We felt with our length and athleticism we would be able to get after people, but you’ve got to have the right mindset to do that. If you don’t play hard, it doesn’t really matter. So that has been our focus from Day 1.
“This is not one of our better shooting teams, but defense is something you can hang your hat on every night. When you hold teams in the 30s and 40s, you give yourself a shot to win.”
Offensively, balance has been the key. The Blue Devils have made a habit of having four or five guys in double figures or close to it. Some nights they have pushed the total to six or seven players.
Steadying things for the team has been senior point guard Ethan Rice, a fourth-year starter at that position. English said Rice’s assist-to-turnover ratio has been incredible. Ditto for his steal-to-turnover ratio.
“As a freshman and sophomore he was in the sectional both years,” said English. “He has been in every situation for sure. He has been unbelievable for us this year.”
The Blue Devils could get even stronger when the new year arrives. Keith Arrowood suffered a broken foot in July, and then played six quarters of football before his fibula was broken in two places during a game. English said he’s hoping Arrowood can return by early January.
“He’s probably one of the better defenders on the team,” said English. “And he can relieve Ethan, and maybe free him up on the wing.”
Some challenging games are ahead for the Blue Devils, including tonight’s contest against Sullivan East at home. The Patriots are young, but always well-coached, and will look to bounce back from a humiliating 66-22 loss to Tennessee High on Saturday.
Following the Patriots are road games against Hampton (Friday), Cloudland (Dec. 17) and Elizabethton (Dec. 20).
Unicoi is favored to win the Three Rivers Conference, but it will take plenty of effort, said English.
“We will have to work for every single thing we get this year,” said English. “South, ’Betsy, Johnson County, East. None of them are easy games. We want to keep working and be playing our best in February, and hopefully on into March.”
Follow Douglas Fritz on Twitter @FritzBlitzzz.
Points of interest: Knox Fulton rolled undefeated to the Class 4A state football title, and finished off the all-time record for points scored in a season with 862.
That shattered the previous mark of 748, set in 2010 by Greeneville.
Fulton averaged 57.5 points per game, and scored 54 in the title-game win over Giles County.
A pair of football all-star games are scheduled for this weekend. First up is the Seventh Annual Toyota East-West All-Star Classic. It will be played Friday in Cookeville with kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m. at Tucker Stadium.
The game features 88 of the top high school players in Tennessee, and can be viewed locally on WAPK MyTV Tri-Cities. It will also be available on the internet at rivalrythursday.com.
On the East roster are Science Hill lineman Aaron Adams, Greeneville safety Trevor Wright, Dobyns-Bennett lineman Nick Sensabaugh, and Tennessee High wide receiver Adam Mitchell. …
On Sunday, the FCA 2013 All-Star football contest will be held in Bristol at Virginia High’s Devault Stadium. It will be between the top seniors from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Approximately 100 players are scheduled to participate. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
Tennessee’s team will be coached by Elizabethton’s Shawn Witten. Assistant coaches include Daniel Boone’s Jeremy Jenkins and Sullivan South’s Sam Haynie.
Boys basketball games of the week: (Today) David Crockett at Dobyns-Bennett, Hampton at Elizabethton, Sullivan East at Unicoi County, University High at Unaka; (Friday) Knox Webb at Daniel Boone, Tennessee High at David Crockett, Elizabethton at Sullivan East, Unicoi County at Hampton; (Saturday) Knox Webb at Science Hill.
David Crockett has already turned some heads this season, but the Pioneers have a chance to take it to the next level this week. …
Elizabethton faces a tough rival before a tricky road game while Class A Hampton has a pair of serious Class AA challenges.
Boys player of the week — Patrick Good of David Crockett.
The sophomore point guard raised his scoring level, knocking down four treys and totaling 20 points in a 70-53 win over Sullivan Central.
Good really got hot in Friday’s 64-62 overtime win over Daniel Boone. He finished with 32 points.
Boys pick of the week — Unicoi County 56, Hampton 51.
It’s a game where the Blue Devils will likely have to battle until the final minutes of the game, and will need their defense to decide the issue.
Picks record: 1-0.
Unicoi County takes advantage of Dobyns-Bennett’s free fall to take over the No. 1 spot in this week’s Prep Top 10. It is possibly the first time ever the Blue Devils have been ranked No. 1 in the area.
Team W-L Prv
1. Unicoi County 9-0 2
2. Science Hill 8-2 4
3. David Crockett 9-2 5
4. Elizabethton 6-2 3
5. Dobyns-Bennett 4-3 1
6. Tennessee High 5-1 6
7. Sullivan South 4-3 7
8. Daniel Boone 6-4 8
9. Johnson County 3-4 10
10. Hampton 6-2 nr
Girls basketball games of the week: (Today) Hampton at Elizabethton, Sullivan East at Unicoi County; (Friday) Knox Webb vs. Daniel Boone at Science Hill, Dobyns-Bennett at Volunteer, Elizabethton at Sullivan East, Johnson County at Happy Valley, Unicoi County at Hampton, South Greene at Cloudland; (Saturday) Knox Webb at Science Hill.
Hampton is going to get a really good idea where it stands after facing a couple of tough Class AA opponents. …
Sullivan East gets an opportunity to prove it belongs at or near the top of the Three Rivers Conference. …
South Greene and Cloudland square off in what could be the first of several meetings between these Class A powers.
Girls player of the week — Tianna Tarter of Science Hill.
The Lady Hilltoppers didn’t get much of a challenge from a pair of league mates, and Tarter was a big part of the difference.
In an 82-36 win over Dobyns-Bennett, the senior point guard finished with 24 points. She followed up with 23 points in Friday’s 71-30 whipping of Tennessee High.
Girls pick of the week — Elizabethton 59, Hampton 49.
The Lady Cyclones are starting to make some post noise, and that will make them even more difficult for Hampton to handle.
Picks record: 1-0.
Cloudland continues to impress, and moves up to No. 3 in this week’s girls rankings.
Team W-L Prv
1. Science Hill 9-0 1
2. Elizabethton 7-1 2
3. Cloudland 9-1 4
4. Sullivan South 5-2 3
5. Hampton 6-2 6
6. Sullivan East 9-2 8
7. Daniel Boone 6-2 9
8. South Greene 9-3 10
9. Volunteer 8-3 5
10. Unicoi County 5-3 nr
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