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KENLY — With just eight players on the team, the North Johnston High varsity girls basketball team will live and die by how the Lady Panthers can work together to replace the production lost after last season.
The expectations for the North Johnston varsity boys begin when the program considers the challenging 2-A Eastern Plains Conference slate that lies ahead.
Both teams tip off their respective seasons Tuesday night at Hobbton.
After a 14-11 run that took the team to North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs a season ago, North Johnston graduated its leading scorer, Jordyn Scott, along with contributor Lindsey Massengill and two other seniors.
Those players weren’t necessarily replaced with many new faces, meaning that players who are returning will take on bigger roles to fill the gap.
“A lot of players are going to have to step up,” head coach Jay Poole said. “Those with a year of experience are going to have to grow into it.”
Poole will rely on guard/forward Mackenzie Gibson, the lone senior on the team — who missed part of last season with a knee injury — to step up and be the “glue” for his program.
Joining her and adding some height to the lineup will be sophomore Nakiya Blue and junior Imoni Hines, the team’s main post players and rebounders.
Junior guard Arial Pearce will also be back as a reliable shooter who can drive to the hoop just as consistently.
The cast of characters will need to embrace bigger roles for the team to fare well in what is expected to be a tough 2-A Eastern Plains.
“It’s going to be a challenge every night. It’s a very solid conference, very well-coached,” Poole said. “Three of the last state champions or runners-up have come from the Eastern Plains Conference, so there are no off nights, no off nights. We’re going to have to be prepared and ready every night.”
Running with a roster loaded with seniors, the Panthers have yet to rise in the conference where defending state 2-A champion Farmville Central has dominated in recent years. A core of veterans return with their eye toward changing that — and making the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17.
“Expectations-wise, they’ve finished in the bottom two or three in the conference every year,” head coach Chris Batten said. “The goal is to get ourselves out of there, back up into the upper-half part of the conference and back into the playoffs.”
To get there, the Panthers will look to four players for crucial contributions — senior Justin Vann, junior Dominic Tinsley, senior Dylan Pitts and senior Carsse Lucas.
Vann returns as a guard who can create his own shot, while Tinsley will be taking on a bigger role after spending the second half of last season on varsity. The importance of Pitts and Lucas lies in their ability to know their roles and play them consistently night after night.
“We’ve had a little bit of chemistry issues the last few years, in getting kids to buy in together on what exactly everybody’s roles are,” Batten said. “I don’t see that being a problem this year.”
Batten called the challenge of EPC play a “dog fight,” which will begin Jan. 10 against the Jaguars. Before the team gets there, it will use nonconference play as a means to prepare for a tough road ahead.