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Cloudland favored in Watauga Valley Conference

Jeff Birchfield; Douglas Fritz • Nov 10, 2018 at 4:08 PM

Coaches' picks

1. Cloudland

2. University High

3. North Greene

4. Hampton

5. Sullivan North

6. Unaka

There's firepower on the mountain according to the Watauga Valley Conference basketball coaches.

Cloudland is the preseason favorite after returning a number of high scorers including Robert Leeper and Josh Blair, its top two from a year ago. They are two of nine seniors on probably the deepest team, regardless of classification, in Northeast Tennessee.

Other seniors include Jordan Coffey, Josh Stevens, KJ Arnold, Malachi Benfield, Thomas Hicks, Dillon Johnson and Israel Boone. But, like the information, wait there's more — the junior class includes Conner Birchfield, Logan Barnett, Hunter Shell and Hayden Shell. Throw in a couple of talented sophomores, Elijah Blair and Bentley Gilbert, and the biggest challenge for coach Gary Harrison is getting everyone playing time.

"There's going to be some competition. I don't know when I will settle on a starting five," Harrison said. "We have a lot of tools, a lot of people who can score. We have all the pieces. We just have to mesh together and sacrifice for each other. If we do that, the sky is the limit for us."

UNIVERSITY HIGH

The Bucs are loaded with their own offensive firepower, boasting a number of players capable of scoring. Like Cloudland, the Bucs were picked ahead of a North Greene team that made the state tournament last season.

A starting five likely consists of Marshall Fleenor (5-9, Jr.) at the point with Colin Daniel (6-0, Sr.) and Kaleb Meredith (6-0, So.) at the wings. Charlie Vargo (6-1, Sr.), who can play both inside or on the perimeter, and Jake Hubbard (6-1, Sr.) are at the posts. Mason Broome (6-1, Jr.) could also start depending on matchups.

Coach Justin Penley pointed out the Bucs are giving up a little size in the post, but are big at the guards with Vargo and Meredith. He added that Hubbard, whom he calls "country strong," will contend underneath, no matter the size of the opponent. He also sees some depth.

"Jake may give up some size, but he's got a knack at the five to be able to create space and get his shot away," Penley said. "Overall, I feel like we're going to be deep with some kids coming off the bench in pivotal roles. I like our team, like our kids and I'm excited to get going."

HAMPTON

Youth is the key word for the Bulldogs this season.

"This will be the youngest team I've ever coached," said head coach Ned Smith. "We have just one senior."

Jordan Bentley, Rocky Croy, Jonah Jones and Matt Hughes saw some varsity time last season, but the rest of the roster is moving up from the junior varsity team.

"We've got eight or 10 who can play like we want, and get up and down the floor," said Smith. "We have some depth, but we're just young. We need some valuable experience."

Bentley (6-5, Jr.) will be part of the post mix along with Caleb Oaks (6-2, Jr.), Hughes (5-11, Jr.) and Morgan Lyons (6-1, Fr.).

Battling for time at point guard are sophomore Garrett Vines, junior Izaak Hill and freshman Conor Jones. At the shooting guard position, Rocky Croy leads the way. He complemented by Jones, Hill and Mitchell Tolley.

SULLIVAN NORTH

Injuries clobbered the Raiders before the season even began.

Dale Potter is recovering from a broken hand, Jaden Lovelace is trying to work his way back from a broken elbow, and Jacob Cross' ankle surgery will likely keep him out for the season.

But head coach Travis Cain, who guided his team all the way to the Class A sectional last year, said the Raiders can still be competitive in the league even though they lost all five starters from 2017-18.

"I like this bunch," said Cain. "They've worked hard. Once we get some guys back, it will really help us and we're capable of surprising a lot of people. The talent is there, it's just the experience is needed."

North will roll with junior Trey Williams at the point while sophomores Tyler Depriest and Isaiah Pruitt will handle the wings. Junior Yancy Dolen was described by Cain as a rebound machine.

Zach Scott, a senior, will be a post presence. Also in the heavy-rotation mix are 6-3 post C.J. Maris and swingman Evan Bishop.

UNAKA

The Rangers have gotten bigger, stronger and faster than a year ago, according to coach Aaron Dugger. Still, they will be one of the smaller teams on the floor this season.

"They've bought into our summer workout and they've done everything I've asked up to this point," Dugger said. "They've gotten bigger, stronger, faster in the weight room and they've worked on their game. I'm proud for the work they've put in and hopefully it will carry over to a better season."

Unaka has just one senior, Isaac Hill, but he's the team's leading scorer each of the last two seasons. There are six juniors — Ryan Johnson, Dylan Whitehead, Nolan Bradley, Austin Drew, Daniel Ensor and Joseph Rasnick — along with two sophomores.

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