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KENLY — High expectations in the sport of varsity basketball traditionally follow some members of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference.
In the 2018-19 season, North Johnston High will join the likes of the Farmville Central, North Pitt and Beddingfield boys and the North Pitt, Farmville Central and SouthWest Edgecombe girls as the league unknown.
Eighth-year North Johnston girls head coach Jay Poole refers to readying for the season as a project with only one starter, senior point guard Jordyn Scott, returning.
“There’s so much teaching going on,” Poole, beginning his 22nd season as a head coach, explained. “It’s a step-by-step process. It’s a project to get better as the season goes on. It’s a process.”
Fourth-year boys head coach Chris Batten is anxious to learn how much impact four transfers will provide after losing 50 percent of its offense.
“We have been on the other end of transfers a lot,” Batten reminded. “It changes expectations. We were looking to be a lot thinner until the transfers came in.”
The Panthers tip off the season at home Friday night against county rival Princeton.
In 2017-18, the boys compiled a 9-15 record and finished fifth in the EPC.
Prospects were promising for the Lady Panthers until Lavossie Taylor, an NCAA Division I recruit, was injured in the fifth game and did not return. Instead of returning for her senior season, Taylor has transferred to Word of God and reclassified as a junior.
“We will try to continue to mix things up,” Poole remarked, “but we are not as big or as fast. The nonconference games will tell us how deep we’ll be and if we can press as much.”
Offense draws daily emphasis, Poole assured, but he added: “It’s absolutely starting with defense. We have to be defensive-oriented.”
SCOTT THE FOCUS
On the floor, the focus will turn to Scott, a three-sport performer.
“She’s our leader and our most experienced player,” Poole reasoned. “She needs to set the example in practice and off the court. She has a good 3-point shot, is a good ball-handler and doesn’t mind getting floor burns. We are relying a lot on her.”
Scott could be joined in the starting lineup by returnees Lindsey Massengill, a senior; and sophomore Arial Pearce. Poole indicated the final two practices will determine the remaining two starters and says the rotation could fluctuate.
Candidates include senior returnees Olivia Gachuz and Haley Narron, sophomore Imoni Hines, back from last season; and Nikiya Blue, the freshman with the best chance of playing time.
Junior returnee MacKenzie Gibson will be out until January after undergoing surgery for a tendon repair. Karizma Jones, a 6-foot-1 junior, is playing for the first time since middle school. Kenisha Barnes, Ashton Huddleton and Aaliyah Massey are the other freshmen.
Last season, Massengill moved into the lineup when Taylor was injured. Pearce, a capable shooter, will be counted upon to step up. Poole cautions she must be ready to play and will be relied upon. Hines, also “thrown into the fire,” could provide a post presence.
Returning to basketball, said her coach, has been a huge adjustment for Jones.
The athletic Blue impresses with her defensive potential.
Poole and assistant Melody Johnson look for scoring by committee and will challenge all five players on the floor to be responsible for rebounding.
The Lady Panthers head coach suggests the pace of a new level is currently fast and is eager to see the players reach the point “they can play and not have to think so much.”
Poole doesn’t mention wins and losses and notes: “We know how good the conference is — ruthless. We will scrap and see if we can get up there.
“It depends upon our improvement. There are no egos; we are just working hard to get better and learn.”
The only boys returnees are 6-foot-2 Savon Foye and 6-2 Daylan Hinnant, the only seniors; and junior point guard Justin Vann. Foye scored at a clip of seven points per game last season, while Vann and Hinnant each averaged six.
Batten describes his top eight or nine as the quickest and most athletic he has coached. Critical will be a new defensive philosophy implemented during the summer, working on ball pressure and pushing the pace. Defense proved last season’s downfall.
Surprises have been junior Luke York and junior Bernard Moore, who transferred in last season; and sophomore Kamare Watson, a recent transfer from Beddingfield.
Friday night’s tentative starters are Vann, Hinnant, Foye, Watson and 6-2 junior Carsee Lucas.
Vann is described as a natural scorer with an impulse to go to the basket that he is harnessing. He has become more consistent with his mid-range jumper.
“Things are going to start in Justin’s hands,” Batten pledged.
Hinnant, a capable scorer, has been challenged to become more aggressive. Foye, mentioned as “a guard in a small, small forward’s body,” will help on the boards and go to the basket.
Batten considers Lucas the best communicator and leader on the court; applauds his court savvy and awareness and willingness for not minding “to do things that are not flashy and maybe seen by only his coach.”
Watson, said Batten, is ultra athletic, doesn’t hesitate to play “in-your-face” defense and possesses a soft shot.
Junior Dylan Pitts, York and junior Demaris Hicks are destined for back-up roles. Junior Rakaun Rodrigues, a transfer from Smithfield-Selma, looms as the proverbial wild-card.
Of the conference race, Batten responds: “Like every year, everything goes through Farmville. I think we can compete. It all depends on how we play defense. We will go as far as our defense takes us.”
Goals include being competitive and reaching the playoffs.