The Middlesboro Yellow Jackets took a big step forward last year, their second under head coach Russell Thompson. The Jackets went from 3-21 to 18-14 and brought home an improbable 52nd District championship from Harlan County’s floor.
Another season of improvement could have Middlesboro playing with the big boys again in the 13th Region Tournament come late February and early March.
It’s entirely possible as the Jackets return seven members of their ten-man rotation from last year and boast five seniors. The keys will be replacing the rock that Cameron Rancher became inside and learning to deal with success.
“Cameron was a great player, he battled every night,” Thompson said. “Now I’ve got five seniors coming back and a couple of juniors with a lot of experience. We played a ten-man rotation last season and seven of those guys are back and I feel like we can do some good things. But it’s not going to be like it was last year, we’re going to have to be ready to play because we’re not going to sneak up on anyone. We’re going to have to play every night in order to come out with a victory.”
Middlesboro switched their lineup around quite a bit to play match-ups last season and that figures to be the case again in 2012-13. Among the backcourt options are seniors Michael Wilson and Blake Davis and junior Donnie Foister. Up front the Jackets return seniors Zach Riddle, Derek Smith and Boone Bowling along with junior Austin Poindexter.
The three guards can all handle the ball and shoot the 3. The four forwards are all around 6-3 or 6-4 and can guard multiple positions, rebound and finish at the basket.
“We can go big and put Derek or Austin at the three or go with quickness and have all three of those guards in at the same time. We can do a lot with the lineup there,” Thompson said. “There are some other kids that are coming along in practice and starting to knock down shots pretty consistently in Major Edwards, Matthew Mike and Brandon Hale. I’m really excited about where our team is now and I’m ready to start playing. I feel like the guys are too.”
Depth looks to be a primary strength for the Jackets again and you can tell Thompson is a math teacher as he tries to break down how the playing time will shake out.
“I’ve got seven guys that will be in the rotation right now for sure. There are 32 minutes a game at five spots so that gives you 160 minutes to spread around and those seven will probably all get over 20 minutes a game barring foul trouble or anything like that,” he said.
“The biggest thing is for everybody to find their role. We’ve got to find the guys that give us the best chance at the start of games. There are going to be some guys who maybe do better coming off the bench to give us a spark and pick us up defensively or offensively. Then we’ve also got to find the guys who are good closers. Guys we know we can trust with the ball and hit free throws if we’ve got the lead or if we need to go with defensive intensity. That’s my job as coach is to find those guys and put them where they can be successful at and mesh it all together.”
If it all comes together, the Jackets have the talent to make another run in the 52nd District and contend in the region. Those are the goals the team has set for the season.
“Our goals are to work as hard as we possibly can, learn our roles and get in a groove so that we’re hitting our peak by the end of the year. That way when we get into tournament time we can reach those goals of winning the All “A” regional championship, back-to-back district championships, and then go on to the regional tournament and try to win that,” Thompson said. “I’ve got a good group of kids, it’s a good opportunity for us and I’m trying to get that across to them. Chances like this don’t come along every year. It’s not every year that I’ve got five seniors with this much experience. This is their last year at it so we’ve got to take advantage of it now and we’ve got to do that day in and day out with our work.”
District play for Middlesboro has long meant going up against Bell County. In 2008 the Bobcats completed a streak of 14 straight district championships that included their first few years in the 52nd. When Cawood, Cumberland and Evarts consolidated into Harlan County High School five years ago that team was supposed to dominate the district going forward. Instead Middlesboro has two district championship over the last four seasons while Bell County and Harlan County have one each.
Thompson says the Bobcats and the Black Bears still have to be considered the favorites in the district, but added that it’s not going to be easy for anyone.
“Harlan County and Bell County are always probably going to be favored in the district just because of the size of their schools over Harlan and ourselves. But with us being the district champions I’m sure they’ve got us marked on their schedules,” he said. “We’ve got them marked as well and we’re looking forward to seeing where we’re at.
“We want to prove that what happened at the end of last year is something we can carry through and do it again. We want to prove that we can compete night-in and night-out in this district and this region. Harlan’s got a new coach in there and some returning players. There’s not going to be any easy wins for anybody in this district. But you know what, which ever two teams come out of our district are going to look good in the regional tournament after going through that.”
Middlesboro opens the regular season at home Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Barbourville.