Last season was fairly successful for Burke County basketball. Six of the eight established county teams made the playoffs, while the two teams from the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Morganton played their first season and tried to get their feet under them. In this piece I am going to look at what the county teams have coming back and the expectations I have for them in the coming season. As I only saw the NCSSM boys' team play once and the girl's team not at all, I will not try to analyze them. But I saw every other team play several times and I think I have a decent handle on what to expect from them this year.
I’ll start with the girls and with the Freedom girls first. The Lady Patriots didn’t have a single senior on last season’s team, which advanced to the regional semifinal. Freedom started strong and then had a mid-season slump that saw them drop to last place in the NW3A/4A, a spot rarely seen by the Lady Pats. However, Coach Amber Reddick may have done one of the best coaching jobs of her illustrious career after that as Freedom came back and played well during the last part of the league season and then went on a tear in the playoffs with upsets against Hibriten and Oak Grove on the road.
Peyton Caldwell was the primary offensive weapon last season for the Lady Patriots, but Sydnie Demiter also added about 10 points per game when she was healthy, while Statlee McGee was often deadly from beyond the arc. In the paint both Ava Whitaker and Ava Whisnant played tough defense and did a workmanlike job rebounding, and both improved offensively as the season progressed. Haven Gladden matured as the season went on in her role as point guard while the Lady Pats got good minutes from several players off the bench. With everyone returning from last season’s team, expectations are high, but the NW3A/4A is tough and Freedom will have to survive a gauntlet in non-conference against the other county teams as well as Shelby, Hickory and A.C. Reynolds.
The most successful team last year was the East Burke Lady Cavaliers. The Lady Cavs made the regional finals and only needed a couple of shots to fall their way to defeat Salisbury and advance to the state title game. They finished 27-3 in one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Lady Cavs get back spark plug point guard Braelyn Stilwell, who is a threat both from the perimeter and on the drive and might be the best girls player in the county this year. Kara Brinkley provides East Burke with another returning scoring threat, but East Burke lost their two big girls down low in Taylor Bostian and Aubrey Griggs.
But those were the only two losses from last year’s team and coach Crystal Bartlett has consistently shown that she knows how to rebuild. The CVAC was competitive as usual, and the Lady Cavs will probably face another tough Newton-Conover squad. The Lady Cav JV squad was successful last season and, if coach Bartlett can replace her losses in the paint, East Burke should be formidable again this year.
The Draughn girls had probably the most successful season in school history last year, at least in terms of advancing farther in the playoffs than any previous team in school history. They advanced to the regionals for the first time, topping a tough Mountain Heritage team along the way, and beating North Rowan on the road before losing to Robbinsville. But the Lady Wildcats lost more to graduation than any other county team. Katie Cozort, Aubrie Griggs and Ella Abernathy were all key starters for Draughn who graduated.
Coach Liz Taylor does get back Jenna Abernathy, Emilee Cook, Rylee Woody and Zoe Rector from last year’s team and all played key minutes. The Western Highlands 1A/2A is another tough conference with Mountain Heritage and Rosman usually giving opponents fits. Draughn plays a difficult non-conference schedule against county team, which ought to help them prepare for conference play.
The Patton Lady Panthers struggled last season, but coach Autumn Helms brought her team along and they played competitively against several conference opponents. Although Patton failed to make the playoffs and struggled finishing 4-18, they do return a core of players to build on going forward. Karson Pinkerton and Lindsey Devine both played significant minutes for Patton. The non-conference schedule will be challenging for the Lady Panthers, but they should be competitive again in the Mountain Foothills 1A/2A
The Freedom boys were NW3A/4A conference champions last year, but their second-round ouster from the playoffs was a disappointment. They lost starters Philly Harris and Dyson Dellinger from last season but return a solid group of starters. Amore Connelly has shined in his two seasons playing for the Patriots and has shown the ability to take over a game in crucial moments. If he can consistently play up to his potential, Freedom could be hard to handle.
Gavin McNaughton returns as a starter in the paint and Kaiden Lytle comes back to run the point for the Patriots. Kobe Johnson, Braxton King and Max Taylor all return with lots of game experience for the Patriots and, if they can fill the parts of those graduated starters, Freedom could be a power again. South Caldwell could be good in conference play while Freedom has a challenging non-conference slate with Hickory, A.C. Reynolds and Hopewell all on the schedule. Patriot fans generally expect their teams to be playing in March, so there is some pressure on Freedom to succeed.
The Patton boys were young last year and gained valuable experience during their 12-14 season. They only lose Randan Clarke and Kaden Bostian from last year’s team, but get back lots of talented players. Brady Chamberlain was all over the court for the Panthers last year, pressing and pushing the tempo for coach Dennis Brittain’s squad. Jake Perry is the leading returning scorer while players such as Chandler Rutherford and Cody Bollinger provided depth and played strong defense.
The Mountain Foothills is tough and Patton finished in the middle of the conference behind powers Hendersonville and R-S Central. But they played tough against both teams and confidence gained from those games will carry forward into this season. Brittain has been the coach at Patton for 12 years now and taken his team as far as the third round of the state playoffs in the past. If the Panthers can play up to their potential, this could be one of his best teams yet.
The Draughn Wildcats were solid last year, finishing at 13-14 and third in the Western Highlands Conference in coach Drew McGuire’s first season. But Draughn lost Luke Rector, the Pritchard brothers and a couple of other players to graduation. Fortunately, D’andre Moore returns at guard and he came on strong for the Wildcats late in the season. They also get back Tate Jensen and Blake Mcelyea from last season and both showed promise. At this point, it isn’t clear whether Eli Tillery will play basketball, but he would give Draughn another threat on both ends of the court should be choose to play.
Mountain Heritage will probably be tough in the Western Highlands, as will Avery. Draughn plays a challenging non-conference schedule and that should help them with their seeding come playoff time, but they probably need to finish at least second in the conference to get a home playoff game and have a chance to make a run.
East Burke showed lots of promise last season and coach Jerome Ramsey is always working to improve his team. The Cavaliers were close in several games and look to improve on a 4-19 record and last place finish in the CVAC. East Burke gets back the explosive Barger Shook in the paint as a starter. The young southpaw rocked the rim frequently last year and knows how to fire up the crowd, he rebounds well and shoots the baseline jumper. But East Burke lost their principal threats from outside to graduation and they will need to find guards to handle the ball and shoot from outside to make a difference.
It now seems that Statlee McGee will not play for Freedom this season.