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Clay moves into favorite’s role in 2020

After numerous disappointing finishes that fell short of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, the Knox Central Panthers ended a 49-year drought by winning this year’s 13th Region Tournament title.

While South Laurel was the preseason favorite for most and looked like the team to beat through much of the season, the Panthers finally got hot at the right time and the senior-dominated team knocked off Corbin and North Laurel in the regional tournament. The Panthers were my preseason pick in this column last March, the third straight year I’ve correctly picked the winner after Harlan County in 2017 and Corbin in 2018.

If my run continues, that will be good news for Clay County in 2020. The following is my annual look back at the best of 2019 and a look ahead to what you can expect next season.

All-Region

First team

G — Matt Cromer, South Laurel

G — Jaylen Adams, Knox Central

G — J.J. Ramey, South Laurel

G — Conner Robinson, Clay County

F — Nick Martin, Knox Central

Second team

G — Jordan Akal, Harlan

G — Reed Sheppard, North Laurel

G — Chase Sanders, Corbin

G — Alex Pace, Harlan County

C — Tyler Partin, Bell County

Third team

G — Jabari Kyle, Middlesboro

G — Kilian Ledford, Harlan

G — Slaht Hunter, Williamsburg

F — Landon Young, North Laurel

C — Mykel Griffin, Middlesboro

Fourth team

G — Dane Imel, Knox Central

G — London Stephney Bell County

G — Caleb Rose, Williamsburg

G — Shawn Vaughn, Barbourville

C — Evan Langdon, Clay County

Best juniors

Matt Cromer, South Laurel

Jabari Kyle, Middlesboro

Slaht Hunter, Williamsburg

Evan Langdon, Clay County

Caleb Rose, Williamsburg

Best sophomores

Connor Robinson, Clay County

Connor Farmer, Clay County

Matthew Gray, Barbourville

Jevonte Turner, Knox Central

Tyler Cole, Harlan County

Best freshmen

Jordan Akal, Harlan

Gavin Allen, Corbin

Jackson Huff, Harlan County

Isaac Mills, Knox Central

Hayden Callebs, Pineville

Predictions for 2019-2020 (grades are listed by next year’s class for each player mentioned)

1. Clay County — Two straight first-round exits in the 49th District Tournament have made the tradition-rich Tigers especially hungry for a deep postseason run in 2020. All five starters are back, led by junior guard Connor Robinson (22.8 points per game last year, 6.7 rebounds). Senior guards Jacob Curry (10.3, 2.8) and Jakob Begley (2.9, 3.5) also return, along with junior guard Connor Farmer (12.0, 4.0) and 6-4 senior center Evan Langdon (12.5, 10.4). Junior guards Raven Abner (6.8, 2.9) and Tate Farmer (3.1, 2.1) provide quality depth.

2. South Laurel — Probably the 13th Region’s best team for much of last season, the Cardinals were upset by North Laurel in the regional semifinals. South loses J.J. Ramey, the region’s player of the year, but brings back three senior starters in Matt Cromer (19.1, 5.1), Alex Hostetler (5.9) and Brett Norvell (12.6, 4.6). Junior guard Micah Anders (3.5) will move up from a key reserve role. The other starting spot appears to be up for grabs, but 6-3 senior Zach Allen could provide come much-needed size

3. North Laurel — Three starters are back for the Jaguars, led by standout freshman guard Reed Sheppard (16.4, 4.2), one of the state’s top young players. Senior guards Cole Kelley (16.1, 4.2) and Isaiah Alexander (12.5, 2.0) are also returning after helping lead North to last year’s regional finals. Senior Isaiah Elmore and junior Nate Bruner (2.1) were top reserves last year.

4. Knox Central — After finally breaking through for a regional title, the Panthers won’t go away despite losing four starters to graduation. Senior guard Zach Patterson (13.3, 3.5) was one of the team’s most consistent scores last season before being sidelined by an injury in the region. Junior Jevonte Turner (4.8, 2.6) moved into the starting lineup at that point and played a key role in the Panthers’ success. Senior forward Kevionte Turner (9.7, 6.3 in 2018) is back after being sidelined last year with an injury. Sophomore Isaac Mills (2.1, 2.6) and junior Andrew Sizemore move up after leading last year’s junior varsity squad.

5. Williamsburg — With a senior-dominated team returning, the Jackets should have their best squad since winning the region in 2015. Caleb Rose (19.9, 7.3) and Slaht Hunter (19.5, 6.2) are among the region’s top players and return, along with point guard Dalton Ponder (6.7, 3.8) and 6-2 forward Devonte Powell (4.0, 5.1). Junior guard Jason Bray (2.8) could round out the lineup.

6. Corbin — Senior guard Matthew Taylor (14.2) and 6-4 senior forward Alex Byrley (8.1) are the returning starters for the always-tough Redhounds, who never seem to lack depth. Junior guard Josh Hibbits (5.7) and senior guard Cole Hicks (4.6) played key reserve roles a year ago and should move up. Senior guard Grant Morton and 6-4 senior Max Barnett are also in the mix.

7. Harlan County — Headed for their fifth straight 52nd District title after an unbeaten regular season against district opponents, the Black Bears stumbled late by losing three of their last four, including a loss to Middlesboro in the opening game of the district tournament. The Bears bring back several key players, led by 6-6 senior Taylor Spurlock (11.1, 5.0), 6-3 junior Tyler Cole (8.4, 3.7) and junior point guard James Smith (6.5, 2.2). Senior guard Jacob Wilson (5.5, 3.2) and junior forward Josh Turner were key reserves last year and in the mix for starting jobs, along with sophomore Jackson Huff (4.2).

7. Middlesboro — Victories over Harlan County and Harlan gave the Jackets their first 52nd District title since 2012 and a repeat isn’t out of the question despite losing six seniors. Jabari Kyle (15.1, 3.1) is back for his fourth season at point guard in a backcourt that also includes athletic 6-4 senior Trey Brock (7.6, 5.0) and senior Jordan Davis. T.J. Patterson (3.1, 2.7), a 5-11 senior, will likely start at forward. Juniors Eric Helton, Ethan Barton and Bryson Barnard are among the candidates to round out the lineup.

9. Harlan — Much like Middlesboro, the Green Dragons also lose six seniors and three starters, but sophomore Jordan Akal (17.2, 3.9) could be the region’s best point guard. Jon Eldridge (9.6, 8.4), an athletic 6-4 senior, is back at center. Sophomores Jaedyn Gist and Kaleb McLendon will join Akal in the backcourt after serving in key reserve roles last year. Senior guard Charles David Morton or sophomore Johann Gist will likely win the other starting job.

10. Bell County — Three straight first-round district exits make it tough to rank the Bobcats among the regional favorites, even though the talent is still there for a run despite losing three of their top six to graduation. Senior London Stephney (12.8, 3.6) may be the region’s quickest point guard and returns along with 6-3 sophomore forward Cameron Burnett (5.3, 3.9) and 6-5 junior wing Sean Phipps (6.8, 4.6). Sophomore guards Dalton Stepp (2.1) and Dawson Woolum (2.1) and junior guard Andrew Caldwell are leading candidates to complete the lineup.

Best of the rest

Barbourville — No one surpassed expectations more than the Tigers in Cody Messer’s first year as coach and Barbourville could surprise again this year despite losing four of the team’s top six. Senior guard Shawn Vaughn (12.3, 5.2) and junior guard Matthew Gray (10.8, 4.0) are back, with senior Dylan Bingham (4.0) and 6-3 junior forward Dylan Moore among those in position to move into the lineup.

Jackson County — Senior forward Logan Rose (16.7, 7.8) and senior guard Jayden Baldwin (5.3, 2.3) give the Generals a 1-2 punch that could make them one of the region’s most improved teams if a few role players step up. Junior guard Clay Akemon (5.7) also returns to the starting lineup. Freshman guard Jade Lakes (7.1, 2.1) could also earn a starting job after a strong finish last year.

Lynn Camp — Three starters are back for the Wildcats, including senior guard Max Burd (13.1, 2.5), 6-2 senior forward Matt Disney (8.9, 6.2) and junior guard Maison Prater (13.1, 2.2). Junior guard Luke Lexington (2.2) and freshman guard Jace Boggs (2.6) could round out the lineup.

Whitley County — With four starters graduating, the Colonels will have to start over after a seven-win improvement from the two previous seasons. Sophomore guard Jack Estes (3.8) is the only starter coming back. Garrett McNealy (2.3) and Gray Estes, both sophomore guards, are also likely to move into the lineup, along with junior guard Tanner Gilbert (2.4) and 6-1 sophomore forward Trevor Downs (2.8).

Red Bird — Four starters are back for the improving Cardinals, including senior guards Austin Napier (12.5, 7.1), Deagan Finley (14.6) and Dalton Finley (9.0, 2.5) and 6-3 sophomore forward David Collett (6.5, 4.1). Senior forward Dolph Onusumba and junior guard Bryce Helton are candidates for the final starting slot.

Oneida Baptist — With four senior starters back, including Elijah Woods (17.2, 7.8), Sochi Onuoha (19.1, 6.2), Tyler Preston (8.5, 2.3) and Clay Hamby (7.3, 3.9), the Mountaineers look like a potential All “A” contender on paper. Junior guard Wayne Estep (10.3, 2.1) also returns.

Pineville — The Mountain Lions doubled their win total from a year earlier and should continue to improve with four starters returning, led by senior guards Dalton Mason (10.1) and Braxton Caldwell (3.2). Junior Keean Fuson (4.9) and sophomore Hayden Callebs (6.5, 2.4) also return to the lineup. Senior center Landon Couch (4.5, 6.1) and senior guard Clay Goodin (9.4, 2.8) could also work their way into starting jobs.