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With the varsity girls basketball team coming off its best season ever and a solid returning cast and the varsity boys posting their first winning record since 2015 last season, expectations are understandably high for the upcoming basketball season at Hunt High.
The Lady Warriors of head coach Tiffany Parks and the Warriors of head coach Dwight Taylor will tip off their seasons Wednesday evening at East Wake High in Wendell. Leading the way for the Hunt girls will be their five seniors, including Bria Griffith and Imani Sutton, who were just freshmen in Parks’ first season in 2016-17.
“This is the first year where I’ve had this young group who were my babies are now are my leaders,” Parks said.
For Taylor, four of the top seven scorers return from the 2018-19 edition that went 15-10 and reached the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs.
In his second season back after a two-year “retirement” hiatus, Taylor hop es this team will at least match last year’s success.
“We just tried the best we could each time out (last season) and those kids responded,” he said. “I feel like we had a chance in most of our games. But those guys reponded early so maybe these guys will, too.”
Last season the Lady Warriors won a school-record 22 games, repeated as 3-A Big East Conference regular-season champions, won the conference tournament as well as the Farris & Farris Holiday Tournament and reached the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs for just the second time in the school’s 41-year history.
What will the Lady Warriors do for an encore? The answer lies in their worst performance of the 2018-19 season, a 71-15 season-ending thrashing at the hands of Southeast Guilford on its way to the state 3-A championship.
“We definitely every year had a goal and we met that goal every year, and so now, yeah, the goal gets harder and we’ve had some long talks about what it’s going to take to get there,” Parks said. “And, you know, seeing the team that beat us, I hope was a learning experience, because how that team played and worked needs to be a reflection of what we need to do.
“It’s easy to tell kids something and show them yourself but it’s harder to let them live through it. And so I think just living through that experience, kind of helped them see the effort it’s going to take.”
Griffith and Sutton give Parks a duo of which any coach would be envious. The 5-foot-10 Griffith, who was the Big East and Wilson Times Player of the Year, averaged 15.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game while the 5-9 Sutton, an All-Big East and Times All-Area selection, posted norms of 13.8 points, 5.0 rebounds. 2.2 steals and 2.2 assists.
“Bria and Imani have been working hard all summer, and in the spring on the travel team, and I’ve seen some growth in both of them,” Parks said. “And we’ve met and discussed some new development in their game that they haven’t shown people yet. So we’re really looking forward to seeing how that progresses.”
Also back for Hunt are 5-3 senior guard Khala McNeil, whose improvement Parks described as “drastic,” and 5-9 senior forward Dylia Lucas, whose role will be expanded with the loss of promising sophomore Ariyana Carlton to offseason knee surgery.
However, the return of athletic senior Brianna Tucker, who was injured for much of last season, will give the Lady Warriors an added dimension.
“She’s like our secret weapon in that if she really wants to step up, she’s steps up — defensively, for sure and, offensively she can get down the court better than anybody I’ve seen, speed-wise,” Parks said.
Along with Tucker is her fellow softball standout, sophomore Madison Mercer, whose speed and athleticism are comparable to Tucker’s.
Parks is high on freshmen Kayla Haley, a transfer from Sallie B. Howard School, and guard Kennedi Smith, who didn’t play last season at Forest Hills Middle.
“Another secret weapon,” Parks said of Smith. “She came to the workouts in the fall and she just fit right in like a missing puzzle piece. So we’re really excited to have her on as well. She’s a great guard in all aspects — straight shooter, great defensive player, she’s a great dribbler.”
The key, Parks said, is getting her seniors, including forward Alyssa Todman, to be the leaders they haven’t had to be up to this point in their careers.
“They were always the leaders on the court but they kind of had those older girls to fall back on,” she said. “Whereas now this year, they are the older girls and we’re having to teach the new kids and having to rely on them to help make the whole team a success. So it’s going to be a very different year for them.”
Parks said that in the Big East, Northern Nash should be stronger and Franklinton still has star wing Miracle Cornell.
“And then, of course, Rocky Mount,” Parks said. “Never overlook (head coach) Pam Gainey.”
The goal is to be better by February and Parks hopes that a tougher non conference schedule, including games against NCHSAA 2-A runner-up Farmville Central, Eastern Wayne and Clayton.
“I think last year we had it a little too easy in the nonconference,” she said. “So, hopefully a little tougher nonconference will help prepare us better.”
Taylor, who coached the Warriors for 24 years until his retirement at the end of the 2015-16 school year, likes what he sees so far from his team might be the smallest he’s ever coached.
“We don’t have the size that we had last year but we do have some athletic kids who can run up and down the floor,” he said. “So we’re counting on those guys to get a little quicker.”
Even with three seniors and two other returning starters, Taylor insists the Warriors need more game experience and depth.
“We’ve got some kids back but I’m just concerned about our depth,” said Taylor, who learned Tuesday afternoon that senior Tiquez Taylor, a starter last season, decided not to play basketball this year.
The top returning scorer is 6-3 sophomore Davon McKayhen-Jones, who averaged 10.1 points and 9.0 rebounds last season.
“He’s very athletic and he’s active,” Dwight Taylor said of McKayhen-Jones, who was the top receiver on the Hunt football team this season.
Another sophomore, point guard Ty’Chaun Clay, is going to play a bigger role than he did last season when he averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 assists.
The senior duo of 6-2 forward Shaquille Wade and 6-3 guard ShaKei Hines will be integral to whatever success the Warriors have.
Another sophomore, 6-3 forward C.J. Joyner, leads a group of players up from junior varsity, including 5-9 junior guard Blaize Keen, 5-9 junior guard Ja’Nijae Carmon and 6-2 junior forward Allen Barron.
Taylor likes the play of promising 6-3 freshman forward Jah’terius Horne while transfer Shakiey Chadwick and seniors Justin Hammonds and Daniel Barnes will compete for minutes.
Dwight Taylor listed his top shooters as Hines, Clay and Keen.
Athleticism and speed will be assets for this Hunt team in compensating for lack of size.
“I think defensively we’ll get after people and get up and down the floor,” the veteran Hunt coach said. “I don’t think there’s many big men who can run with our team.”
After Northern Nash, which posted its third straight 10-0 conference mark last season, the 3-A Big East Conference was wide open in 2018-19. Taylor thinks the league will be even more so this year.
“I think so,” he said. “Northern Nash, they had a real good run the last few years and most of those kids have graduated.”
Hunt has an ambitious nonconference schedule that includes home-and-away games against defending state 2-A champion Farmville Central. The Warriors will be the host team for the Farris & Thomas Holiday Tournament in defense of their title.