Who can dethrone the Starmount boys above the rim of the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Athletic Conference?

Could it be West Wilkes, who finished the 2020 regular season tied for second and then went on a historic run to capture the tournament title?

Or how about Wilkes Central, who also finished tied for runner-up a year after an unblemished MVAC regular season?

East Wilkes and North Wilkes are looking to improve upon seven-win seasons and make the race even more interesting.

East Wilkes

The East boys finished sixth in league play with a 4-10 record. Overall the Cardinals were 7-16 under second-year coach Wes Rousseau, the program’s most wins in four years.

Six seniors must be replaced in Ronda, including all-MVAC Trey Lambert, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.

East’s top returner is senior guard Dylan Ward, who averaged 10.3 points while hitting 80% of his free throws and 40% of his 3-pointers. Senior forward Brayson Church also made the league honorable mention squad.

“We return around 70% of our scoring from last year,” noted Rousseau. “We expect to continue to grow and hope to challenge for a top spot in the conference.”

Rousseau said sophomore center Ledger Blackburn, the team’s second leading scorer last year, “has demonstrated tremendous growth in the offseason, and I expect this to be a breakout year for him on both ends of the court.”

Three returning Cardinal seniors are Tate Samples, Bryson Sidden and Jacob Spriggs.

Samples played some important minutes last season and is an effective shooter, according to Rousseau, and this season has focused on improving himself defensively. “He has turned into a very well rounded player.”

Sidden, a guard, is “probably our most improved returning player, and will lead us defensively from the guard position. His capacity to get to the basket will also help open up our offense from the outside.”

A forward, Spriggs has “really improved his conditioning and quickness in the off season,” noted Rousseau.

Blending in with the six returners are seven newcomers to the Cardinal varsity team.

Sophomore point guard Braxton Long played about eight varsity games last season, said Rousseau, and “we expect him to run our offense this season. He is very consistent from the outside and has the ability to penetrate and get past defenders and get to the rim.”

Sophomore Ethan Cass is the team’s “best on-ball defender, rebounds especially well for his size and has the ability to play multiple positions,” said Rousseau.

Sophomore forward Daniel Handy missed his entire freshmen campaign due to a shoulder injury, but Rousseau said he is “a very strong post defender and will provide us with important minutes this year.”

Sophomore Briggs Gentry “plays with incredible defensive intensity and probably has the quickest first step on the team. He can play any of the guard positions effectively.”

Rousseau said Zane Lovette and Austin Blackburn, both junior guards, “have shown flashes of offensive brilliance so far this season,” and junior Mikey Darnell is “a versatile player on both ends of the court who can play multiple positions.”

The parity that was evident last year in the MVAC should continue this year, according to Rousseau. “North Wilkes, Ashe, Wilkes Central and Elkin all return impressive rosters full of playmakers, and although West Wilkes and Alleghany lost significant numbers due to graduation, they also had the top JV programs in the conference and have solid players ready to replace those who have departed.”

Starmount is one of the best coached programs in the area, he said, and is consistently one of the top two teams in their conference, “so it’s a given that they will be competitive.”

Success during the pandemic will be predicated upon health, as teams could lose players due to sickness or quarantine, Rousseau noted. “I’m just excited that the kids, especially our seniors, have the opportunity for a season this year, and I hope that they embrace and cherish this opportunity for a sense of normalcy in these uncertain times.”

Third-year coach Avery Wallis heads up the JV program and is Rousseau’s assistant.

North Wilkes

The North boys finished tied for seventh in the MVAC with a 3-11 mark. Overall, they were 7-18.

Coach Logan Call must fill the shoes of all-leaguer Matthew Holloway and honorable mention Lyle Watkins with six returners, including seniors Zack Carlton, an all-league pick, and Trenton Sidden.

“We just want to be the best version of ourselves each and every day,” said Call. “We understand with COVID-19 there are a lot of things that are going to happen this year that are out of our control. We have really worked to focus on what we can control each and every day and be the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a team every single day.”

Carlton is the club’s leading returning scorer (11.7 ppg) and “can really shoot the basketball and carry us offensively at times,” said Call. “Zack has gotten stronger and improved as a slasher and finisher. He has to be an active defender and rebounder (3.5 rpg last year).”

Point guard Sidden contributed nine points and 3.6 assists per contest and is Call’s coach on the floor. “Trenton was an irreplaceable part of our lineup last year and will be just as important this year. He handles defensive pressure well, is our best team defender, and is the guy who leads our team. He can really shoot the basketball and create for others and will have to be more aggressive offensively for us to be successful.”

Senior Caleb Souther was injured last season and missed a majority of his sophomore season due to injury. Call said he is “our ‘lunch pail guy’ that does all of the little things well. He is a great defensive rebounder, communicator, and he is our leader both by his actions and his words. Having him healthy is a huge benefit to our team and program.”

Austin Robertson, a senior, “can really shoot the basketball and has worked hard to improve his ball handling over the past two years. He is a guy that can give us energy off the bench and is a great teammate every day,” said Call.

Call said junior guard Grayson Lamb is a “highly intelligent basketball player. He knows the right play and when to make it and is a very solid team defender. We need Grayson to be more aggressive as a scorer and facilitator this year.”

Senior Colby Brown is one of the hardest workers at North, said Call. “He rebounds with great energy and can really attack the rim. Colby is one of our best scorers and can really help us on the offensive and defensive end. He has to limit turnovers this year as he will play a much larger role.”

Call’s new faces include three juniors, two seniors and sophomore Brandon Holloway, who has been a “very pleasant surprise in practices so far. Brandon can really shoot the ball but is also one of our most skilled players and can get to the rim as well. He has really improved as a rebounder and defender and when he plays with great effort he can be one of our best players.”

Reese Cleary is a 6-7 junior who split time between varsity and JV last year. “Reese can run and has become a very good shooter as well as an improved ball handler. He has the potential to change games with his ability to protect the rim and rebound. We expect big things from him this year.”

Junior Zack Wyatt is a “great offensive player that can shoot from the perimeter and attack the rim,” said Call. “He can be a very good defensive rebounder and gives us a physicality on the wing.”

Call called junior A.J. Crane “one of the hardest workers in our program. He is coachable and does everything he is asked with unbelievable effort and commitment. He is battling through a hip injury and we really need him healthy to provide depth and to help us on the defensive end.”

Senior Bryan Johnson played his freshman and sophomore years before taking last season off to get healthy. “Bryan is a great shooter and can change games when he gets hot. He has committed to working defensively and rebounding. If he continues to work the way he has in practice he will be a huge benefit to our team.”

Trystan Walker, another senior, returns after taking a couple years off. “Trystan is one of the best athletes in our program. He is learning our system and gaining confidence. If he plays with effort and confidence he can be a great energy guy and scorer off the bench.”

Call thinks that any team can compete for the conference championship. “We don’t have that one dominant team this year, but we have a lot of teams that are dangerous and can win on any given night. I think the team that wins the conference is going to be the one that stays healthy. You can’t have let downs.”

Call’s varsity assistants are Mark Shumate and Noah Johnson, the fourth-year head JV coach. Shumate is the definition of a North Wilkes Viking, said Call. “He is everything you ask for and more in an assistant coach.”

Johnson does a “great job of building relationships with our athletes and has a great JV group to work with this year,” noted Call.

West Wilkes

The West boys had an 11-3 league mark last year, which tied them with Central for second place in the conference. Overall the Blackhawks were 18-8 after falling in the first round of the 2A state playoffs.

West captured the league tournament crown for the first time in school history. It was the program’s first title overall since the 1991 regular season.

MVAC coach of the year Scottie Greene must fill the shoes of seven seniors, including Jacob Brown, a third-team all-District 11 pick and tournament MVP last year. Post player Jackson Stinson and guard Jaden Wentz were also all-league picks.

Seniors Austin Triplette (10 points, three steals a game) and Dylan Miller (eight points, four rebounds) were honorable mention all-conference last year.

Wilkes Central

The Central boys finished in a second-place tie with West Wilkes with an 11-3 league record. Overall, they were 14-10 and fell in the first

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round of the 2A state playoffs. The Eagles were undefeated in league play in 2018-19 and captured the program’s second league title in three years.

Daylon Banks was a third team all-District 11 selection last year but was lost to graduation, along with all-leaguer Marcus Lopez and honorable mentions Jakob Gowan and Colby Lakey.

Among three returners are two senior all-leaguers: guard Zach Mastin and center Jonah Brooks. Mastin averaged 11.5 points per game and hit a team-high 30 3-pointers. Brooks was Central’s leading rebounder and shot blocker while averaging 7.2 points.

“Zach brings a lot of experience to the table can play any guard position really well,” said Central Coach Matt Hagaman. “He’s a tough, crafty guard who makes smart plays and lights it up from the outside. We will count on him to be a leader this season.”

Hagaman said that Brooks is a “tough and smart player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. We will count on his experience to anchor the post and be a leader.”

Senior swing man Jamairius Allen is the other returner and is a “very athletic guard/post who uses his length to defend and pick up trash baskets,” said Hagaman. “He is a playmaker — good things just seem to happen when he is in the game.”

Seniors Bryce Smithey and Brian Hartley are first year varsity players.

Hagaman said Smithey, a guard, is a “tough young man and who picks up things really quick on the court. I love Bryce’s effort, attitude, and determination. Even though this is his first year with us we will look to Bryce for senior leadership.”

Hartley, said Hagaman, is a forward and “vocal leader who plays strong in the post. Brian will be an enforcer in the lane this season.”

Hagaman has four juniors guards on his roster: Carlos Reyes-Martin, Spencer Leatherman, Evan Church and Malachi Rucker.

Reyes-Martin is “blessed with tremendous athleticism. He can create things with his quickness, disrupt on defense, and he has a motor that never stops. He’s a fun player to watch play the game.”

Hagaman noted that Leatherman will be asked to play many positions this season. “He handles the ball well and can get hot in a hurry from outside. Spencer can be a factor all over the floor.”

Church can play and guard all positions, according to Hagaman. “Evan understands the game as well as anyone and has a really high basketball IQ. He is a matchup nightmare because he can play both outside and in.”

Rucker is new to the program this year but is a “fast learner who athletically brings a lot to the table. He’s a strong guard to defend well and plays strong — his style of play fits well with what we like to do at Wilkes Central,” noted Hagaman.

Three sophomores have earned spots on the Eagle roster: Anthony Graham, Taye Wilson and Kamen Smith.

Graham, a point guard, is an extremely quick player who handles the ball and sees the floor really well, Hagaman said. “He is a ‘driving force’ that can set the pace in a game, and that pace is fast.”

Hagaman said Wilson is a guard who has a smooth jump shot and also has the ability to slash and score at the rim. “We will count on him to step up, play tough and make an impact on our success.”

Smith, a forward/center, “brings toughness and strength to our team,” said Hagaman. “He isn’t afraid of anything, and we are really excited about what he brings to the Eagle inside game on both ends of the court. In addition to running the floor extremely well for a big man, we will count on his ability to rebound, defend and score in the post.”

Hagaman said of his squad, “We want to give our best every day. The result of that will be an outstanding season for the Eagles. We want to win it all.”

Brandon Shore, Keith Denny and Dustin Foster are assisting Hagaman this season. Shore, the school’s assistant athletic director, is also the head JV coach, and Denny and Foster are the JV assistants.

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