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Golden Raiders look to bounce back from injury-riddled season

Jeff Birchfield/Tanner Cook • Nov 21, 2019 at 2:30 PM

University High will be the team others are chasing when league play begins in the Watauga Valley Conference.

Here is a look at some of the league’s teams.

Coaches’ picks

1. University High

2. Hampton

3. North Greene

4. Sullivan North

5. Unaka

6. Cloudland

University High

The league favorite Bucs feature a core of players that includes Kaleb Meredith (6-1, Jr.), who scored 36 points in the state quarterfinals. Talented guard Marshall Fleenor (5-10, Sr.) also returns from last season’s 29-6 team.

Other returners who have seen significant playing time are Matthew Carter (5-10, Sr.), Mason Broome (6-1, Sr.) and Zach Rice (6-3, Sr.).

Herman Rice has taken over the program after coaching the University High girls a year ago, and he has plenty of depth to work with. Ander Blowers (6-2, Jr.) will likely start early while Zach Rice recovers from a hip injury.

Others looking to play into the mix are seniors Hayden Charles, Jacob Cunningham and Mason Harrison, sophomore Joseph Kent and freshman Sam McGee. Ben Vargo, John Carter and Jacob Pealer should also see some action.

Hampton

Ned Smith’s roster had not one senior last season. Now this year’s team is led by five seniors who make up a majority of the offense.

The intimidating presences in the post will be Max Cash (6-5, Sr.) and Jordan Bentley (6-5, Sr.), but the Bulldogs also have outside threats in Rocky Croy (6-0, Sr.) and Matt Hughes (5-11, Sr.).

Conor Jones (5-10, So.) shined on the floor his freshman season and is looking for an even better second go-round.

Hampton finished 21-12 and lost in region quarterfinals last season, and a lot of the league coaches expect big thing from the Bulldogs this year.

Sullivan North

After reaching the sectional round in 2017-18, the Golden Raiders are coming off a somewhat disappointing season, one in which injuries took a toll on the small squad.

Some of this year’s probable starters are guard Trey Williams (6-2, Sr.), Isaiah Pruitt (6-4, Jr.), Tyler Depriest (5-11, Jr.) and Yancy Dolen (6-3, Sr.).

The inside game will be a key for the Raiders, who have four players listed at 6-5 or taller.

Unaka

The Rangers lost most of their scoring from last season’s 14-17 finish but bring some athleticism to Stoney Creek.

Ryan Johnson (5-10, Sr.), Joseph Slagle (5-10, So.) and Will Sexton (5-10, Jr.) are expected to be starting guards. A pair of 6-1 seniors, Austin Drew and Daniel Ensor, are the starting posts.

The Rangers have some depth. Seniors Dylan Whitehead, Nolan Bradley and Jonathan Burchett may be looked to for leadership, and 6-3 junior Michael Heath is their tallest player.

Freshman transfers Joe-z Blano and Jamol Blano look to be big contributors, as does sophomore guard Devin Ramsey. Other young players are Jonathan Campbell, Gavin Seigfried and Cody Drew.

Cloudland

Depth is a key word for the Highlanders. Coach Gary Harrison expects all 11 players to get minutes this season.

After last year’s disappointing 10-19 campaign, Cloudland looks to get back on track with a starting lineup that includes combination point guard Connor Birchfield (5-6, Jr.), a pair of 5-9 senior guards, Hunter Shell and Bentley Gilbert, and 5-8 guard Hayden Shell.

The three leading post players are Jed Childress (6-4, Sr.), Elijah Blair (6-2, Jr.) and Garrison Julian (6-1 Sr.). Hunter Blair, Caleb Sluder, Dylan Shell and Victor Hicks round out the varsity roster.

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