The 2018-2019 basketball season ended for the girls on Saturday, with Gibson County crowned state champion in Class A and Cheatham County winning the state title in Class AA. The boys will wrap up in Murfreesboro this week, where Cosby and University High will be among the teams competing for a state title in Class A, and Austin-East and Fulton in Class AA. For local teams, attention will turn almost immediately to the 2019-2020 season, which begins in November. Many players will continue to hit the hardwood with travel teams in the months ahead, before summer camps begin in June. As the off-season begins, here are five questions that appear pertinent ahead of next season:
1.) Can Oneida get back to Murfreesboro? In an exciting season that featured many accomplishments, there was no accomplishment bigger than the Lady Indians’ run to the Class A state tournament. And while their season ended in the quarterfinal round, the pieces are in place for Oneida to make a return trip in 2019-2020.
Oneida will miss the presence of its two seniors, Shay Buttram and Logan Lamb. Buttram was one of the team’s top players in 2017-2018, before a knee injury slowed her down. Lamb provided valuable minutes off the bench to spell Katelyn Stiltner on the post.
But the Lady Indians return all five of their starters, and eight of the 10 players who received key minutes this season. Among them will be rising seniors Kendyl West, Jayden Thomas, Chloe Terry, Harley Boyatt and Chelsea Newport, and juniors Katelyn Stiltner, Gracie Martin and Paige Wisner.
Of the teams at the top of Region 2-A, Oneida returns the most experience by far. Midway and Sunbright each lose three starters to graduation, and Tellico Plains loses a wealth of starting experience, as well.
2.) Can the Indians find a point guard? While the girls were going to the state tournament for the first time in 14 years, Oneida’s boys came up just a handful of points shy of ending their two-decade state tournament drought, falling to Cosby in the Class A substate game. Oneida won the Region 2-A tournament, upsetting Harriman after losing to the Blue Devils three times prior to the championship game.
The Indians return four of five starters from their region championship team, which seems to bode well for getting to the next level next season. But the three players Oneida loses to graduation were valuable, and none moreso than Chance Botts. A four-year contributor, Botts blossomed the last two seasons and was District 3-A’s best point guard as a senior. Replacing him will not be easy. His backup at the position was no longer with the team down the stretch.
Oneida was not particularly deep in 2018-2019, but will have even less depth next season with the loss of seniors Luke Carson and Trenton Clark. Both were in the starting lineup until the Indians’ football players got into basketball shape, and continued to provide valuable minutes off the bench after that.
The depth issue is one that might be harder to fix, though it appears the Indians will have a freshman next season — Jeric Huling was among the top Class A middle school players in East Tennessee this past year — who can contribute immediately. If Oneida can find a suitable point guard to replace Botts, a state tournament appearance may be within its grasp.
3.) Where does Scott factor into District 4-AA? Trey Morrow was District 4-AA’s newcomer of the year this past season, and had a strong argument for the district’s most valuable player award. Though opposing teams were able to guard him more effectively as they picked up more tape on him, he averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game for the season, a hefty stat line for a freshman in Class AA basketball.
The Highlanders lose several key contributors to graduation, including three starters: Bryson Russ, Kadon Babb and JD Lauderdale. And while you wouldn’t usually consider a team that finished last in the regular season and loses three of five starters to be in contention the following year, Scott could find itself right there.
The teams at the top of District 4-AA — Fulton, Austin-East and Alcoa — all lose valuable players to graduation. Of the three, Fulton was the only team Scott couldn’t hang with this season. The Highlanders upset Austin-East, and were up by as many as 16 against Alcoa in a regular season game before nearly defeating the Tornadoes in the district tournament consolation game.
Morrow will be accompanied by a wealth of young players, including two others who received starting time as freshmen (Noah Buttram and Luke West). Joining the trio of rising sophomores will be Cash Tucker, who came on strong as a sophomore this past season. Other rising juniors who will see big minutes next year will be Eli Storey, Trevor McCarty and River Gray. Mason Owens, one of the team’s better defenders, will return for his senior season, and Logan Goodman — a sometimes-starter — will be back as well.
Don’t be surprised if the Highlanders are able to make some noise in District 4-AA next season.
4.) Who replaces Grace Sexton? Lady Highlander coach Jackson Sharp had a big task this season in replacing three starters from last year — Journey Babb, Hannah Myers and Sierra Young. He may have an even bigger task next season in replacing Grace Sexton.
Sexton isn’t the only starter the Lady Highlanders have to replace. Lou Chaney, Makayla Babb and McKayla Byrge will all graduate as well. All three were much improved in 2018-2019, with Chaney and Babb becoming increasingly reliable offensive weapons as the season progressed. But it was the play of Sexton, a three-year starter at point guard, who made the team go.
Lindsey Summers, who will be a senior, is the only starter returning for the Lady Highlanders next season.
On the floor, the answer to the question — who replaces Sexton? — seems obvious. Callie Carson burst onto the scene as a sophomore, and was at times the Lady Highlanders’ leading scorer off the bench. It seems all but certain that she’ll replace Sexton at the point.
As for the offensive production that Sexton brought to the team, it might be by committee. In addition to Carson and Summers, returners who played a lot of minutes this past season will include Shaelee Ellis and Tara Sellers, both of whom will be seniors next year. Julia Butts also burst onto the scene as a sophomore this past season and seems likely to wind up in a starting role next year. Kenzie Smith will return as a junior, as well.