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Central ready for repeat performance

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Nov 10, 2018 at 6:46 PM

Coaches' picks

1. Sullivan Central

2. Sullivan East

3. Sullivan South

4. Elizabethton

5. Happy Valley

6. Unicoi County

7. Johnson County

Coming off last year's District 1-AAA championship, Sullivan Central is favored to win this season's Watauga Valley Conference girls basketball championship.

The Cougars lost just one player to graduation, Taylor Sanders, and have a starting five which is an envy of most teams.

Junior point guard Peyton Sams, whom coach Kristi Walling describes as a phenomenal ball handler, leads the way.

Others listed as starters include 6-foot-1 Abbey Crawford, along with Rachel Robinette, Avery Leming and Parker Hurd. Senior Kayla Moody brings plenty of energy off the bench in the sixth-man role. Sophomores Macy McCllelan, Katie Horne and Kylie Harrison, along with three freshmen, round out the varsity roster.

"We have very high expectations for our girls," Walling said. "Taylor is a big spot to fill, but hopefully we have a lot of kids to step up and contribute. They've all played together since they were little and it's a good foundation to build on."

SULLIVAN EAST

While most coaches downplay their chances at the beginning of the season, it's not the case with Sullivan East girls coach Allan Aubrey. He feels the Lady Patriots have what it takes to battle Central for the league title.

"I have great confidence. We're going to win it," Aubrey said.

His confidence is based on a team led by four seniors Kylee Wolfe, Kayla Honaker, Kenzie Thomas and Mattie Gouge. All of the classes at East are talented with junior Morgan Bringman and sophomore Emma Aubrey listed as projected starters.

The freshman class won the middle school state sectional with Hayley Grubb and Riley Nelson.

SULLIVAN SOUTH

Leading scorer Mollie Leslie returns for the Lady Rebels, who have a strong starting lineup of herself along with McKenzie Littleton, Rachel Yates, Abgail Compton and Meredith St. Clair.

It is a team filled with scrappy players, none more so than St. Clair about whom coach Terry Hutson said, "The 50/50 balls, those are 100 percent hers. No one has the heart that she has, and she's a great defender, gets the ugly draw every night."

Senior Carissa Comsa gives the Lady Rebels size inside, while junior players Alex Harris and Nicole Troutman add depth.

"I know what I'm going to get when this team goes out there. They're going to play hard," Hutson said. "Last year, they found ways to win. This year, the schedule is tougher with all of our non-conference games against triple-A schools. There ain't none of them a cupcake."

ELIZABETHTON

The Lady Cyclones feature three returning starters, Abbey Townsend, Kelsie Winters and Kaylen Shell, and while small in numbers with just nine varsity players, they have good size.

Morgan Headrick, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, is a projected starter, while McKendra Norris and Torrie Roberts will start depending on matchups. Elizabethton also features seniors Cassey Fowler and Jordan Owens, along with junior Cheyenne VanHuss, whom coach Lucas Andrews says plays larger than her 5-foot-9 frame.

Beyond the physical skills, Andrew sees other attributes which could make for a successful season.

"I feel like we have good chemistry with this team," Andrews said. "It's a tight-knit group always together and they play hard because of each other. They don't want to let each other down. With this team, I think we have different leaders and no two players are the same. They all bring something different to the table."

HAPPY VALLEY

Senior guard Adrienne Henegar, who comes into the season with 928 points, is expected to lead the Lady Warriors throughout the 2018-19 campaign.

Head coach Thomas Gouge, who was an assistant on Daniel Boone's state tournament team last season, mentioned Olivia Absher, Bailey Ball and Tiana Long as other starters. They will be joined by 6-foot-1 junior post Shalyn Whitson, who is back in Carter County after living in Kentucky last season.

With other key contributors Casey Campbell, Destiny Hyatt and Emily Lunceford coming off the bench, Gouge believes his team will compete every night.

"We're going after it," Gouge said. "We've been scrapping in practice and challenging each other. I like what I see so far."

UNICOI COUNTY

The Lady Devils finished runner-up in last year's district tournament, but face the tough task of replacing star post player Halie Padgett.

Unicoi's starting lineup early in the season includes senior Chloe Powers, sophomore Tenley Holt, junior Kaylia Street, sophomore Caroline Podvin and junior Ashtan Vance. It will likely change some as seniors Kaylee Hendrickson and Allee Griffith have been dealing with injuries.

"We used Halie as a pressure release so much and we don't have that right now," Unicoi County coach Kerri King said. "With our seniors being hurt, they would be our next go-to. This summer we played well, played within the context of the game. We just don't know who's going to take shots right now."

JOHNSON COUNTY

It wasn't a slight that Johnson County was picked seventh in the coaches' poll as most talked about the job coach Leon Tolley has done and how the Lady Longhorns can beat anyone on a given night.

A key is getting the ball in the hands of talented sophomore Sadie Stout, who is a scoring threat when driving to the basket or getting the ball with her back to the basket. Other starters depending on the matchups are juniors Abby Cornett, Natalie Winters, Taylor Cox, Hazlee Kleine and Taylor Parsons.

Sophomore Emmy Miller, who missed half of last season with injury, is another impact player — as could be Rhiannon Icenhour, who plays with a lot of intensity.

"We're going to be better than last season," Tolley said. "Whether that means we're going to win more games, I don't know. Everybody else is going to be better too."

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