If there was one story that jumped out more than others during the first week of the 2017-2018 high school basketball regular season, it may have been just how close Oneida is to being competitive in District 3-A.
The Indians, who introduced a new coach in Jacob King when they opened the season at Union County last week, figure to be able to surprise some folks as the season progresses. That probably wouldn’t take much; if you listen to the chatter around the district, most outside Oneida don’t expect the Indians to be a formidable opponent this season.
But to understand the true ability of this year’s Oneida team, it might be wise to throw out the records from the past two seasons and instead delve deeper into the results. The Indians were close in 2015-2016 and again in 2016-2017. The results may not have shown up in the win-loss column, but they were competitive in almost every game — even against the best teams in the district — and returned most of the supporting cast from last season.
Oneida looked good in spurts against a pair of Class AA opponents last week. The Indians started strong against both Union County and Pigeon Forge, and sputtered a little along the way against each team. The difference was that they were able to close strong against the Patriots and couldn’t quite finish the deal against the Tigers. Regardless, a 1-1 split against a pair of Class AA teams to start the season isn’t a bad first step.
Oneida’s success this season will likely have something to do with whether opposing teams can find a way to cover Zak Kazee. The senior is off to a sterling start, putting up the kind of numbers that start whispers of a district MVP campaign. Pigeon Forge coach Brian Jessie was certainly impressed after Kazee dumped 20 on the Tigers in Thursday’s game, saying he was “at the top of our scouting report” and still managed to find ways to score. And Thursday’s game was just a shadow of Tuesday’s game, when Kazee went off for 33 and 17 in the win over Union County.
For Oneida to be successful, the Indians will have to find more scoring, but there are plenty of candidates who can emerge in that role. Dawson Branstetter, another senior, had 17 in the win over Union County, and sophomore post player Dalton Yancey had 17 against Pigeon Forge.
Sexton picks up where she left off: As a sophomore, Scott High point guard Grace Sexton caught some of her team’s foes unaware last season. She finished by being named to the District 4-AA all-district team, then earned all-tournament honors in the postseason.
Jackson Sharp expected his point guard to pick up where she left off last season, and she did exactly that, with a career-high 25 points in a game against York Institute Saturday evening. The Lady Highlanders were not quite able to pull out a win against the Dragons, but Sexton’s career night still bodes well for a team that is about to enter a district slate that is as tough as it’s ever been.
Journey Babb is likely to be the Lady Highlanders’ most consistent scoring threat this season. She has positioned herself for a big senior season after an all-district campaign in 2016-2017. But finding consistent output elsewhere will be key for Sharp and his team, which makes the 14.3 points per game that Sexton averaged through the first half of the season especially important.
Perhaps more important is the free throw line. Sharp and his team made an investment in free throw shooting during the off-season, committing themselves to shooting with more consistency. That showed up during the first three games of the season, and several players on Scott’s roster can shoot free throws well. But Sexton’s percentage stood out through the first week of the season, as she got to the line 22 times in three games and hit 17, for a 77 percent shooting mark.