SAND ROCK – When area basketball realignments were announced following last season, Sand Rock coaches John Blackwell and Lisa Bates both realized they needed to beef up their schedules in order to prepare them for what could possibly come down the playoff road.
The Wildcats will be thrown into the fire early. They open the 2020-21 season on Tuesday at home against Class 7A Gadsden City. They welcome Class 3A Glencoe on Nov. 23, then travel to Fyffe on Dec. 1 before playing in a tournament in Biloxi, Miss. Dec. 3-5.
Following the Cherokee County Invitational a few days before Christmas, the Wildcats travel to Class 7A Tuscaloosa County for another holiday tournament.
The idea Blackwell and Bates have with loading up early on tough competition is in anticipation for a challenging Class 2A, Area 12 race, which now features Spring Garden, Westbrook Christian and Gaston.
“It’s a tough area and a tough cross area (Area 15: Ider, North Sand Mountain, Pisgah and Section), but when you get to Jacksonville, you should be prepared,” Blackwell said. “I just hope our guys understand when you’re playing 6A and 7A basketball, it’s real hard to run an undefeated season. You’re playing top-notch competition. They have to understand the big picture.
“My high school coach, Coach (L.D.) Dobbins, he always told us it doesn’t matter what you do before Christmas in basketball, but what you do from Jan. 1 until the end of the season. That’s the most important thing. If our guys can understand that, and we can come out of our holiday tournaments, and we can say we’ve got a county tournament coming up and an area tournament coming up, let’s see if we can get to the regional tournament, get to the Final Four. If they can keep that mindset and stay unselfish, then we’re going to be pretty good.”
“We’ve got the 1A state champs (Spring Garden) in our area now and the 3A state champs (Pisgah) in our cross area. It’s a little brutal,” Bates said. “We know we’re in for a tough end of the year, but we’ve got a tough schedule, playing some teams who are really going to get us ready for that end of the year. We’re not so much worried about our record. We’re worried about each game and improving, getting ready for the end. We know it’s going to be a challenge, but I think they’re up for it.”
Both Blackwell and Bates have several key members of their respective squads coming back from last season’s Northeast Regional qualifiers.
Blackwell has Cherokee County’s Most Valuable Player returning in senior point guard Cade Ballenger. Ballenger averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals for the Wildcats (21-11) last season.
Blackwell also has senior guard Garyn Sharpe and sophomore guard Jacob St. Clair coming back after they both received spots on the All-Cherokee County Team.
Sharpe averaged 12 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists, while St. Clair contributed 9.8 points, two boards and 1.5 assists last season.
Senior Logan Wood returns at the two guard. Senior Eli Williams and junior Gunner Cox provide depth at the guard spots.
The Wildcats aren’t just guard oriented for the upcoming season either. Senior shot blocking sensation Xander Bradley (6-foot-6), along with Layne Burt (6-4) and sophomore Kaden Justice (6-5) give Sand Rock some height at the post positions. Senior Brady Jackson also provides a physical presence inside.
“These guys have worked hard,” Blackwell said. “Every chance a league or something got started up they could play in, they played in it. There were times in the summer where we could not let them in the gym (because of COVID-19), but I would see pictures where they would be at each other’s house playing in the back yard. They were finding somewhere to shoot basketball. When you’ve got a group like that, it makes you look like a smart coach.”
Like Blackwell, Bates has a solid lineup returning for the 2020-21 season. The Lady Wildcats (24-10 last season) lost just two seniors, only one of whom was a starter.
Junior guards Lanie Henderson, Caley Garrett and Haley Grace Lisenbee are back, along with senior post Maci Brown. Henderson, Garrett and Brown were all-county selections last season.
Henderson averaged 14.9 points, 8.2 boards, a block and a steal per game last season. Garrett garnered 14 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 2.5 assists. Lisenbee contributed 7.2 points, 3.5 boards, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals. Brown averaged 4.1 points, 7.7 boards, a steal and a block per contest.
Bates said Sand Rock has been working on building depth during the offseason, and has a nice mix of experienced players and newcomers in which to do that. Those players are seniors Makenzi Blackwell, Haylee Stansell and Cheyanne Fuqua, juniors McKenna Ballenger, Arleigh Beard and Emilee Burton, sophomores Lily Middlebrooks and Jacey Stephens, and freshmen Chloe Stephens, Katelyn St. Clair and Kennedy Henderson.
“I love these girls. They’ve had a good attitude at practice so far. They come in every day ready to work,” Bates said. “I’m hoping we have some competition for some spots, which is going to make everybody better. If we have competition for playing time, it will make us all better. They’ve got all the ability. We’ve just got to fine tune it a little bit, work on developing the little details.”
Part of those little details Bates mentioned is getting mentally tougher, which is something Sand Rock has focused on during its offseason.
“I felt like that was one of our weaknesses last year at the end, mental toughness,” Bates said. “We’ve done some things over the break to try and work on our mental toughness, so hopefully that will be better.
“I expect us to be competitive in every game we play, but it’s going to be a challenging year. It’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
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