The end of a five-year era of Elliott County taking everyone’s best shot concluded last March 1, so a program that has occupied a spot in the commonwealth’s consciousness since 2007 is finally outside the 16th Region spotlight.

The Lions are happy to shed that mantle and rejoin the pursuing pack.

“Internally, expectations are still high,” Elliott County coach Greg Adkins said, “but from the outside, the target’s not there. It’s a little refreshing. It feels just a little bit better. We’re working hard, and we’re getting better.”

Due partially to those characteristics, these Lions remind Adkins of a couple of other Lions teams — the youthful 2013-14 bunch that ended a two-year region tournament drought, and the club the next winter that won the first of three region crowns in a row.

“They came in with a lot of the same characteristics,” Adkins said. “They had virtually no experience at that time, yet to be tested in the big stages and game situations, but they steadily got better as the year went on. Hopefully that’s what we’re gonna do this year, is work hard and get better.”

Senior Kole Whitley and junior Bryson Dickerson will key that effort as returning starters. Elliott County’s top three scorers and top two rebounders graduated and the fourth-leading scorer, Colin Porter, transferred to Ashland, so Whitley (7.7 ppg) and Dickerson (3.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) are leaders in returning production.

Whitley is the great-nephew of perhaps the most famous Elliott County native — the late country musician Keith Whitley. Kole’s leadership occupies a similarly central spot to the Lions’ aspirations.

“He’s making our other guys better, and he can go get points for himself when he has to,” Adkins said. “I think Kole’s done a great job to provide leadership and does a good job nurturing our younger guys. I don’t think you can put a value on that.”

Dickerson “has really worked hard and improved his game on a lot of levels,” Adkins said. “Shooting it well.”

Gavin Whitt and Hunter Lyons “on typical teams could’ve started last year, but we were pretty top-heavy with experience,” Adkins said.

Those are two of “a slew of other guys,” as Adkins called it, vying for minutes. “We’re a team that, early in the season, we’re gonna play nine or 10 guys,” Adkins said.

Sophomore Taylor Whitley has “good size, good length and very soft hands.” He isn’t closely related to Kole Whitley, Adkins said. Chandler Reeves, who stands 6-foot-3 according to his coach, returns to the program as a senior and “has had a great preseason.”

Eighth-grade twin guards Gatlin and Eli Griffith — younger brothers of twins Landon and Reece Griffith, whose twintuition epitomized Elliott County’s title trilogy earlier this decade — will see the floor, too.

“I think having their older brothers and seeing what they accomplished, winning regional championships and being in big-time situations, (will help),” Adkins said. “Those guys have been in the gym. They’ve been part of it.”

Elliott County’s offense will look differently, particularly without the driving ability of the graduated Korbin Spencer, but Adkins thinks the Lions can still light up the scoreboard.

“We’re a pretty good shooting team,” he said. “I think we’re gonna put five guys on the floor who are gonna be a threat from the 3-point line. It’s gonna be a little different in the fact that we’ve played off the dribble a lot in the past. We’re gonna have to be doing some things a little differently.

“It’s gonna be a season that we go through, we kinda figure out what we’re good at and gear more towards, and figure out what we’re not good at and stay away from it.”

Adkins, a creature of habit, typically meets with media after season preview interviews at the Sandy Hook Giovanni’s and eats a Philly cheese steak sandwich. This year, after the inaugural MyTownTV/The Daily Independent Northeastern Kentucky High School Basketball Media Day in Ashland, Adkins and Whitley sought out the nearest Giovanni’s and dined there, although Adkins changed it up a bit, going with supreme pizza.

Elliott County has been similarly consistently competitive over the last decade-plus. And even without the returning star power of the best of those teams, Adkins and the Lions don’t plan to drift into irrelevance.

“This group’s very hungry,” Adkins said. “Definitely improving. There’s a lot of questions that we have to answer through the season, but their response in the preseason has been, their energy’s great. It’s made me hungry. It’s given me another sense of hunger.”

And not just for the cheese steak.

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