Johnson Central got to the dinner party but only made it through the hors d’oeuvres. And the cheese plate was a little ripe.
The Golden Eagles still have hunger uncharacteristic of a program that won its fifth 15th Region Tournament in eight years last season, coach Tommy McKenzie said.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the showing we had in the state tournament,” McKenzie said. “We got beat 70-28 by the state champion, Trinity, but at the same time, I think that they believe in their hearts that it wasn’t a true representation of themselves. It left a really sour taste in their mouth about how we played, how we represented ourselves down there.”
Along with that edge, Johnson Central returns three starters — juniors Isaiah May (15.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg last season), Cory VanHoose (16.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and John King (8.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg) — and a wealth of experience in last year’s reserves. Seth Williams (13.8 ppg) joined the mix by transfer from Paintsville.
That collection will engender high expectations — the Golden Eagles were picked No. 1 in the 15th Region Coaches Association preseason poll — and they don’t mind it.
“I think this group really relishes the moment of having that,” McKenzie said. “You have some groups that, if they have a lot of pressure on them or that big target on their back, sometimes it’s hard for them to withstand that. This group seems to be a little bit different. It seems like they relish that moment, they live in that moment and they embrace having the pressure and the high expectations on them.”
The Golden Eagles didn’t know yet in mid-November who would replace graduated point guard extraordinaire Jacob Rice and floor-stretching perimeter shooter Gabe Ferrell, but they boast the personnel to have versatility for varying opponents’ styles of play.
“We’ve got a lot of kids that we feel like can step into those spots,” McKenzie said. “We can play big, but we also can play small ball, where we can get up and down the floor and play without a true 5. That’s kinda where we’re at right now. We’ve got three guys (in May, VanHoose and King), and then we got a lot of the same guy. Right now, we’re just waiting on a couple of those guys to step up and separate themselves in practice from the other group.”
Williams is one of them, along with Grant Rice, whom McKenzie thinks could become the starting point guard. As of the third full week of November, Rice was still playing backup quarterback for Johnson Central’s football team in preparation for the state quarterfinals.
Junior Zack Russell and sophomore Grant Bingham were also still playing football at that time. When they show up — and “if,” in Bingham’s case, according to McKenzie — that gives the Golden Eagles size and strength inside.
Sophomore Jacob Butcher is “a really tough kid who really brings a lot to the table with energy, and he’s got a pretty high basketball IQ,” McKenzie said. Ryleh McKenzie, who attended Johnson County Middle School before spending his freshman season at Paintsville, is back across Paint Creek and is “capable of being a really good guard for us in our program,” according to the coach — to whom he is no relation.
Junior Bryson Hackney, junior Brett Caudill, senior Mason Fairchild, sophomore Connor Lemaster, junior Josh Slone, junior Tate Cantrell and junior Toby Spriggs all played in at least 17 games a season ago and are back. Hackney has had three retina surgeries in the last year, but is expected to be ready to go.
“It’s been a tough go for Bryson, but hopefully he can get through it and make the most out of this season,” McKenzie said. “He works so hard. I just want it to pay off for him.”
Johnson Central is part of what McKenzie calls the toughest district in the region. The 57th District includes three of the top five teams in the region in preseason coaches’ polling — the top-ranked Golden Eagles, No. 4 Martin County and fifth-rated Paintsville.
McKenzie also sees Shelby Valley and Pikeville as threats to Johnson Central’s region title, as well as dark horse Betsy Layne.
The Golden Eagles, though, are fueled by a chase for history. No group other than the four-peat region title clubs of 2012-15 has been to Rupp Arena more than once.
“I think this is another opportunity for them to continue writing the chapters in this book before they leave,” McKenzie said.