After putting together one of the most successful seasons in program history last year, second-year Loudon High School boys basketball coach Josh Graves is wanting to carry that momentum into 2019-20.
The Redskins started the season 19-0 before falling against Brainerd High School in the Region 3-2A quarterfinals and finishing 24-4 overall.
“I think you always set the standard high,” Graves said. “We have lofty goals. Some people would probably say they’re too lofty, but if you don’t set them high, then what are we shooting for? You know, we need high goals to aim at, and if we hit them, great. That’s what we’re here to work for. Last year was a great year, a lot of great memories, but this team is a little different in the sense of we’re a little deeper, we’re a little bigger inside. We still have good guard play, so I expect big things out of these guys, especially once we get full strength and get those football guys back, too.”
Even with last year’s success, Graves faced adversity in his first season and learned the importance of community support as a head coach.
“One thing that I learned is that this community will support you no matter what,” he said. “You know, we could’ve started 0-19, and I still think we would’ve had community support. I knew that when I came back, when I came home so to speak ... that was a big reason because I knew how tight-knit the Loudon community is. I told Wiley (Brakebill) with the radio earlier, there is just something special about being a Redskin, and that’s something I can preach to my boys daily ... kind of preach that and let that be our brand and build off our culture there.”
The Redskins will miss several key players from last year’s team, including Caleb Dutton, J.D. Thaxton and All-Region forward Mason Small.
However, Graves suspects his team will still be one of the more experienced squads in District 5-2A.
“I think we replace by committee,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can score, a lot of guys that can defend and play multiple spots. We’ve got some big guys inside, which is a luxury — it’s few and far between nowadays. I think one guy that, obviously, night in and night out that we’re going to depend on heavily is Donovan Blankenship, junior point guard. He started as a sophomore all year last year. He’ll take care of the majority of ball-handling duties, but he’s going to have to score more for us.
“Lucas Bivens is a tough senior coming back,” Graves added. “He may not have to score in bunches for us, but he does the intangible stuff — gets on the floor, takes charges, plays defense. Those are two guys that pop in mind.”
Bivens saw a lot of action last year in a sixth-man role and will step into a starting position on the perimeter.
“We’ve got some weapons this year that I’m excited about,” Bivens said. “I’m ready for senior season. Once football gets back, we’ll be good. For me, I want to take some of what I learned from them and use that this year. Of course, Donovan is returning this year as our point guard. The rest of the four, we’ve got to fill those spots, and I think we’re ready to fill those spots this year. I just want to be in a leader role, and I want to try to tell the guys when they’re sitting down to stand up and stay energized. I’m trying to be more vocal on defense and stuff, and I’m trying to be that leader this year.”
The Redskins return seniors Mike Kelley, Austin Steil and Gage Henson, who all saw meaningful minutes last season. Junior Broady Harrison will provide length down low, and Sequoyah High School transfer Gunter Millsaps will provide experience.
“We’ve had some younger guys grow up and kind of blossom, like a Broady Harrison, who’s just shot up height-wise and is very gifted,” Graves said. “We have nine, 10, 11 guys that I feel comfortable rolling out, starting out. That’s a luxury to have that kind of depth.”
Loudon will add more size and ability once the football season comes to an end when centers Noah Burnette and Tyler Whitfield join the team. Senior Drew Jackson and sophomore Keaton Harig will add much-needed athleticism in the back court.
“We got a big addition in Tyler Whitfield,” Graves said. “He had a big summer. He’s very skilled, a big body and athletic. They’re going to be huge. We talked, offensively ... you get a guy like Drew Jackson back and as much as he’s tearing up the football field, I want to tell people, ‘You should see him play defense.’ I’ve never coached a kid that defends quite as well as him. We’re going to get back size and athleticism. We’re going to get back guys who can score and knock down shots for us. When you get them all back, then you’ve got your whole squad ... practices will increase in competition and you can really see where you stand, outlook on the season-wise, when you’re fully loaded.”
Several teams in District 5-2A, including Sweetwater and Meigs County, will field younger teams.
“I think every night will be a tough out,” he said. “I know Sweetwater and Meigs are going to be young, Sequoyah’s going to be young, but they’re going to be well-coached. They’re going to come out and be scrappy and fight. I think Central and Polk and us would probably be the more seasoned. Central and Polk return a lot. Polk, if they’re shooting the ball and shooting it well, they can beat anybody. Central’s well-coached, and Doug’s (Armstrong) done it for a long time and done it well for a long time. I would think Polk and Central would be a little bit tougher matchups, but no night’s going to be easy for us when it comes to district play.”
Bivens believes the Redskins have the potential to win the district and advance to the Region 3-2A championship.
“Our goal is to win the district this year,” he said. “I think we’re very capable of that, especially when our football guys get back. I think we can do it this year.”
The Redskins will take on Polk County at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Sequoyah High School in the District 5-2A jamboree. The regular season will start at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at Anderson County High School.