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Expect another wild regional race in 2021

During a season in which there were no clear-cut favorites, it should have been no surprise that this year’s 13th Region Tournament was one of the most competitive in history with four of the seven games decided by four points or less, including Knox Central’s 72-68 victory over Harlan County in the championship game.

Both of my top picks for the 2020 title in this space a year ago, Clay County and South Laurel, suffered semifinal losses, ending a personal streak of three straight years of picking the correct regional winner. Defending champ Knox Central, ranked fourth in last year’s preseason poll, and Harlan County, ranked eighth, both exceeded expectations slightly, even though many expected this year’s race to be wide open.

Next season could be just as competitive, even though I don’t expect as many teams to be considered contenders in 2021. The following is my annual look back at the best of 2019 and a look ahead to what you can expect next season.

Enterprise All Region

First team

G — Reed Sheppard, North Laurel

G — Matt Cromer, South Laurel

G — Jordan Akal, Harlan

G — Jevonte Turner, Knox Central

G — Connor Robinson, Clay County

Second team

G — Jabari Kyle, Middlesboro

G — Taylor Spurlock, Harlan County

G — Zach Patterson, Knox Central

G — Tyler Cole, Harlan County

F — Jon Eldridge, Harlan

Third team

G — London Stephney, Bell County

G — Jacob Curry, Clay County

G — Shawn Vaughn, Barbourville

F — Trey Brock, Middlesboro

F — Cameron Burnett, Bell County

Fourth team

G — Trent Noah, Harlan County

G — Brett Norvell, South Laurel

G — Matthew Taylor, Corbin

F — Slaht Hunter, Williamsburg

C — Sean Phipps, Pineville

Best juniors

Jevonte Turner, Knox Central

Connor Robinson, Clay County

Tyler Cole, Harlan County

Connor Farmer, Clay County

Matthew Gray, Barbourville

Best sophomores

Jordan Akal, Harlan

Cameron Burnett, Bell County

Jaeden Gist, Harlan

Isaac Mills, Knox Central

Jackson Huff, Harlan County

Best freshmen

Reed Sheppard, North Laurel

Ryan Davidson, North Laurel

Parker Payne, South Laurel

Jonah Swanner, Harlan County

Daniel Carmical, Harlan County

Predictions for 2020-2021 (grades are listed by next year’s class for each player mentioned)

1. North Laurel (22-10) — Even though the Jaguars lose two starers and three subs to graduation, it’s clear that North will be among the favorites with two of the state’s top sophomores in their lineup in 6-1 point guard Reed Sheppard (20.6 points per game last season, 5.2 rebounds per game) and 6-3 forward Ryan Davidson (14.7, 5.6). Caden Harris, a 6-0 foot junior forward, is also a returning starter. Senior guard Nate Bruner (3.2) and junior guard Clay Sizemore (4.6), a 3-point specialist, will be among the candidates to round out the lineup.

2. Knox Central (25-8) — After two straight regional titles, you can be sure no one will overlook the Panthers, even with four of their top eight graduating. Senior guard Jevonte Turner (22.2, 6.4) exploded on the regional scene last year as an elite player and will be the focus of every defense next season. Junior guard Abe Brock (2.9) and 6-3 junior forward Isaac Mills (11.5, 7.0) are also returning starters, with senior Andrew Sizemore (9.0, 2.8) also back after suffering a season-ending injury last season.

3. Harlan County (24-11) — After a year out of the regional tournament, the Bears returned with a vengeance with their fifth 52nd District title in six years and a third trip to the regional finals in eight years. Losing Taylor Spurlock and Jacob Wilson will hurt, but the Bears will rebuild around senior guard Tyler Cole (13.5, 4.0), the most valuable player in the district tournament, and 6-4 freshman guard Trent Noah (11.8, 5.0), one of the state’s best in the Class of 2024. Junior guard Jackson Huff (7.8, 2.4), one of the region’s best 3-point shooters, is also back after a strong postseason showing. Senior forward Josh Turner (2.8, 3.4), last year’s sixth man, will also move into the lineup. There are several candidates to round out the lineup, including senior post players Hunter Helton and James Gray, sophomore guards Jonah Swanner (2.7), Daniel Carmical (3.9) and Jeremiah Clem and sophomore forward Tristan Cooper.

4. Clay County (23-10) — While some are already counting out the Tigers after last year’s disappointing finish, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Clay back on top next March with senior guards Connor Robinson (18.0, 6.0) and Connor Farmer (12.3, 3.8) returning, along with last year’s top subs in seniors Raven Abner (8.7, 3.2) and Tate Farmer (3.2, 2.5). Seniors Landon Hensley, Nathan Collins and Colby Sams could also be in the mix.

5. South Laurel (28-5) — Losing eight seniors, including region player of the year Matt Cromer, would be enough to knock just about everyone out of the top five, but the Cardinals are always in the chase for the regional title and will be competitive again. Senior guard Micah Anders (8.8) and 6-2 junior forward Kaden Jones (3.3, 2.8) are returning starters, and sophomore Parker Payne (4.0) is a rising star who will play a bigger role in 2021. There will be no shortage of candidates to fill the other key roles from one of the region’s top junior varsity and freshmen teams.

6. Harlan (13-17) — With an All “A” Classic regional title to their credit, the young Green Dragons were a year ahead.of schedule in 2020 with a starting lineup that featured four sophomores, led by guard Jordan Akal (25.8, 4.3), one of the state’s best in the Class of 2022. Forward Jaedyn Gist (11.5, 8.6) and guard Kaleb McLendon (9.7, 2.8) had breakout sophomore seasons. Junior forward Johann Gist (2.5) also returns, with either junior forward Jayden Ward (2.1) and sophomore guard Kyler McLendon (2.3) the leading candidates to fill the vacant starting job left by Jon Eldridge, one of the region’s most underrated post players.

7. Bell County (12-17) — Losing star point guard London Stephney will be a blow, but the Bobcats featured a sophomore-dominated lineup last season and should be better in Brad Sizemore’s second year at the helm. Cameron Burnett (18.3, 7.1), a 6-4 junior, was among the region’s best post players last season. The Bobcats’ backcourt will again include senior Andrew Caldwell (7.0, 3.1) and juniors Dawson Woolum (10.3, 2.1) and Dalton Stepp (4.7, 2.3). Brandon Baker and Carter McCune, both juniors who saw extensive action last season, will be the leading candidates to round out the lineup, along with freshman Daniel Thomas.

8. Corbin (16-14) — After a rare season closer to the middle of the 13th Region standings than the top, the Redhounds will continue rebuilding after losing three of their top six players to graduation. Senior guard Josh Hibbits (11.7, 3.6) is a returning starter, along with 6-9 junior center Gavin Allen (8.0, 4.3) and freshman standout Carter Stewart (4.8). Junior guard Micah Engle (3.8, 2.0) will also likely earn a starting job. Senior Grant Dickerson, junior T.J. Terrell and sophomore Parker Norvell could also be in the chase for playing time after starting on the junior varsity squad last season.

9. Whitley County (12-18) — By going into full rebuilding mode this year with no seniors or juniors on their roster, the Colonels likely speeded up the process of becoming relevant again in the tough 50th District. Guards Garrett McNealey (9.9, 3.4), Jackson Estes (8.9, 2.7) and Grayson Estes (8.8, 3.6) will return for their junior seasons, along with 6-3 junior forward Trevor Downs (9.7, 6.2) and 6-0 junior guard Seth Mills (4.6, 4.1). Sophomores Jamie Fuson (7.2, 4.4) and Brayden Mahan (6.1, 2.5) also saw extensive action last season.

10. Barbourville (13-16) — After surprising everyone a year earlier, the Tigers dropped off a little last season even though they made it back to the regional tournament as the 51st District runner-up. Three starters and three reserves graduate, but Barbourville can rebuild around senior guards Matthew Gray (15.9, 4.0) and Jordan Collins (7.9, 2.9). Senior guard Michael Smith (3.0), 6-3 senior forward Dylan Moore (2.2, 2.0), junior guard Matthew Warren (2.5) and 6-4 junior forward David Collett (2.5) are among the candidates to round out the lineup.

Best of the rest:

11. Middlesboro (20-10) — With four starters graduating, the Jackets will have a hard time matching their success of the previous two seasons. Seniors Eric Helton (2.9, 2.0), Bryson Barnard (3.3) and Ethan Barton will likely move into starting roles after serving as the Jackets’ top reserves last year, all playing in at least 28 games. Jay Tyler West (3.9, 4.2), a 6-3 junior, is back at center. Freshman guard Cayden Grigsby and junior guard Blaine Woody are also in the mix to earn starting jobs.

12. Pineville (10-17) — While their record doesn’t show it, the Mountain Lions were among the region’s most improved teams last year and should continue to get better even with three starers graduating. Senior forward Sean Phipps (17.9, 8.5) and senior guard Keann Fuson (11.0) are back. Sophomores Evan Biliter (2.1, 2.0) and Ty Clark, eighth-grader Sawyer Thompson and juniors Eli Thompson and Tristan Hubbard are among the candidates to round out the lineup.

13. Jackson County (13-17) — The Generals lose their top player to graduation in Logan Rose, but return their other starters, including senior guard Clay Akemon (14.2, 5.6), sophomore guard Jude Lakes (10.6, 3.5), 6-0 senior forward Garrett Roark and junior guard Andrew Madden (8.7, 3.4). Junior guards Trenton Hammonds (4.9, 2.2) and Luke Adkins (3.0) will also be candidates to start after strong junior varsity seasons a year ago.

14. Williamsburg (17-13) — Perhaps no team in the region fell below expectations more than a Williamsburg squad that featured seven seniors, including four starters. Senior guards Larry Bray (4.2) and Gavon Thomas (7.5, 2.7) will give the Jackets some experience in the backcourt during next year’s rebuilding campaign. Mason Manning is also back for his senior season, along with junior Evan Steely (11.5, 7.2), who put some good numbers in limited action.

15. Oneida Baptist (11-19) — After showing some promise last summer and early in the season, the Mountaineers suffered through a disappointing finish, including a first-round loss in the 49th District Tournament to Red Bird. Senior guards Wayne Estep (10.9, 2.7) and Hamilton Toropo (7.5, 4.0) are the only starters back from a veteran team. Junior guard Isaiah Marcum (4.1, 3.3), senior guard Ikenna Onuoha and senior forward Orrin Frost could round out the lineup.

16. Lynn Camp (13-15) — Making a run in the 51st District will be tough for the Wildcats after losing five of their top eight to graduation, including three starters. The Wildcats will rebuild around senior guard Maison Prater (15.1, 4.1), senior forward Spencer Gilbert (5.8, 3.1) and sophomore guard Jace Boggs (5.4).

17. Red Bird (8-21) — Junior guard Dalton Asher is the only starter back for a Red Bird squad that loses nine seniors. Senior guards Bryce Helton and Hunter Gray move up from the junior varsity squad, along with freshman Felix Onosumba.