CENTRE – Caleb Hays didn’t have much of a summer coaching with the Cherokee County Warrior basketball team last season. He was officially hired in late June of 2019.
Even with the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, Hays feels like he was able to get a lot more productivity out of his second summer with this season’s Warriors.
“It was nice to have some time to develop,” Hays said. “Our summer was big for us, them getting what I wanted them to get. I never really felt like we got there last year as a team. I think some of them kind of got it. Some of them didn’t necessarily get what we needed to get, but I do feel like right now as a group we’re further along than we were last year.”
It helps that several key members from last season’s 11-15 squad are returning, including senior guard Slade Alexander, senior forward Connor Elrod and senior center Nas Diamond.
Alexander averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and four assists last season. Elrod managed 14.1 points, five boards and three assists. Diamond delivered 8.2 points, nine boards and three blocks per contest.
“We do have a good group of our core coming back,” Hays said. “Hopefully we can get Slade completely healthy (from football). That’ll be important for us. Losing Whit Johnson with a torn MCL, that’s going to be tough on us. He’s a returning starter we lost. We’ve got a couple of bang ups we’ve got to work through from some of our returning guys, but we do have a young group that’s playing really well right now. They’re meshing well.”
Some of those younger guys include sophomore guards Malachi Horton, Jack Amos, Cade Hopper, Jaden Wilson, junior guard Tristan Whitefield and junior forward Braden Chandler.
The Warriors also return a couple of other veteran players in senior forward Courtlin Brooks and junior forward Damien Ramsey.
“I like our depth right now. I think our depth is going to give us some early help,” Hays said.
“Every guy we’ve got right now is going to contribute. Every one of those guys is going to be getting big minutes. It’s more about keeping them fresh and playing hard when they’re in there. We don’t know whose night it’s going to be. I’ve got enough guys right now I feel like can contribute and can play. I don’t think it’s going to be this guy has got to have 20 or 25 points for us to succeed. I think it could be any of the guys we’ve got on the floor. It may not be a guy who’s starting on the floor. It may be a guy coming off the bench. I feel confident just from what I’ve seen. I’m excited.”
A welcome addition to the Warrior coaching staff is former player Chai Cowser. Cowser, a 2008 Cherokee County High School graduate, spent the past couple of seasons as an assistant coach at Faith Christian in Anniston. He joined the Warrior staff back in June.
“Chai’s energy is unmatched, both as a player and now as a coach,” Hays said. “He was a senior when I was a sophomore, so I got to play with him a little at that time. When he was a senior, he created a culture within this community and the people he played with as well. He’s brought some of that confidence, some of that swagger back. It’s infectious. The kids love being around him. I can’t ask for anything better than a guy like him. His basketball IQ and energy, what he’s bringing to our culture as a program, and what I’m trying to build is irreplaceable.”
Cherokee County competes in a revamped Class 4A, Area 10 along with Jacksonville, Etowah and Ashville.
“Our area is very competitive, but I do think we can compete with those guys,” Hays said. “I think our guys, by the way they’re playing right now, can compete with anybody when we’re on our execution.”
On the girls’ side, Lady Warrior head coach Leah Nelson has an almost entirely new squad for the 2020-21 season. She has just two seniors in Karlee Perry and Sidney Johnson and only two returning starters in Perry and junior Audrey Green.
“We are definitely a brand new team,” Nelson said. “A lot of times, that means rebuilding. We’d fall into the category, but with that being said, we do have a lot of depth on this team. It’s a very strong freshman class. They’re very fundamentally strong. It’s been a lot of fun watching them through the summer go through the period of adjusting to the speed of the game. It wasn’t as big an adjustment as it has been in the past with groups who come up through the middle school. They’ve had a lot of success through the middle school when they were younger. They’re used to winning. They’re very competitive, and that’s fun to watch in practice, to really go after it.”
Perry is Cherokee County’s top returning outside shooting threat. She connected on 11 3-pointers in two separate games last season for the Lady Warriors (17-14).
“She came on strong toward the end of last year,” Nelson said. “She’s been shooting the ball well. I look for her to continue to be one of our go-to 3-point shooters.”
Returning at point guard spot for the Lady Warriors is Green, whom Nelson said has “gotten a lot stronger since last year.”
“She has quick hands and quick feet,” Nelson notes. “She’s really improved in leading the team and becoming more of a vocal leader, which is what we need.”
Nelson said Johnson has worked on her outside shot and is hoping she becomes a shooting threat.
“She can also get to the paint,” Nelson said. “She’s been working hard on finishing, so I’m excited to see how she continues that into the season.”
Inside the post, Nelson will look to sophomore Ella Garmany to be a big presence for the Lady Warriors.
“That’s probably our biggest area we’re going to have to make up for the loss of Kayleigh (Hunter),” Nelson said. “Kayleigh almost averaged 10 rebounds a game, so that’s probably going to be one of our biggest weaknesses this season, not necessarily our desire to get a rebound, but just having the ability to get the rebound.”
Other Lady Warriors expected to contribute in different areas on the court this season are juniors Emily Allen, Carson Coley, Lanie Gibbs, and freshmen Mary Hayes Johnson, Audrey Haygood, Hannah Moseley, Hannah Waters, Grayson Tucker, Raechel Russell and Lanie Williams.
“A lot of times on a team it may be very clear as to who those five starters are going to be. That has been fun to watch them compete for a starting spot every single day,” Nelson said. “I really feel like I could put five out there and sub five more back in and not lose anything. I’m excited about having some depth on the team. I’m excited about how competitive they are.”
Both Warrior varsity squads open the season on Tuesday at Southside of Gadsden.
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