October 27, 2009 10:39:00 AM
Mark White and Sharon Thompson have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
The East Mississippi Community College men''s and women''s basketball coaches will share that optimism at 6 p.m. Wednesday when they play host to "EMCC Madness" at the Keyes T. Currie Coliseum in Scooba. Admission is free.
The preseason event will serve as an introduction for all of the players. There also will be a dunk contest by members of the EMCC men''s team and a 3-point shooting contest by both squads.
The teams will wrap up the evening with intra-squad scrimmages.
Both teams will have a distinct local flavor.
Thompson, the 2008-09 MACJC Coach of the Year, will feature three players from Columbus High School (freshmen Nashedra Barry and Natalie Tate and sophomore Eryn Gray) and three players from Noxubee County High (freshmen Keyetta Buckhalter and Shanteria Tate and sophomore Raona Stowers).
The Lady Lions also return sophomore forward Martika Hull, of Meridian''s Southeast Lauderdale High. She averaged 13.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last season to help EMCC record one of its most successful seasons in school history. The Lady Lions went 25-7 and advanced to the NJCAA tournament for the first time since 1978.
In addition to claiming the NJCAA Region 23 tournament championship, EMCC won the MACJC North Division regular-season title with an 11-1 mark.
Thompson said this year''s team should be exciting because it has plenty of size, great quickness, and plenty of depth in the post and at guard.
"I really think the sky is the limit for them, but it depends on them and how they pick things up," Thompson said. "I think we have a better team and more depth at every position than we had last year."
Thompson said the depth will provide the players with plenty of competition in practice. She said the practice sessions should help her determine which players deserve starting spots.
Gray, Stowers, and the two Tates figure to compete for playing time in the backcourt, while Barry and Buckhalter will vie for playing time in the frontcourt.
Buckhalter missed most of her senior season at Noxubee County after suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. Thompson said she is coming along and should be OK.
Thompson said Barry will provide depth in the post with Natalie Tate gives the Lady Lions another outside shooting threat and Shanteria Tate adds plenty of speed and quickness to the backcourt. She said Shanteria Tate, whose nickname is "Honey Bun," is like Hull in that she doesn''t have to worry about her because she goes hard in every play and in every drill.
The six local players will be part of a 15-player roster that Thompson hopes to go to often. She hopes she will be able to use that depth to wear opponents down, much like last year''s team did. She said the best five, regardless of class, will start each game.
"I am excited about the season from a practice standpoint because they are going hard," Thompson said. "We''re getting the kids to buy into our system. We are excited because we have a great group of kids who are smart. The kids did a great job preparing in the offseason and in the preseason."
White is just as pumped up for the start of his season.
The third-year coach returns a solid nucleus, headlined by sophomore guard CoCo Ware, of Starkville.
Ware, who earned NJCAA All-Region 23 honors last season, averaged a team-leading 19.1 points per contest in 2008-09. The former Starkville High School standout also averaged 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 steals, and 1.5 assists, hit 67 3-pointers, and shot 71 percent from the free-throw line.
Former Starkville High standouts John Harris, Chris Brand, and Jeff Jernagin and former West Oktibbeha standout Deon Bedford also will help add even more local flavor.
White said Bedford and Jernagin likely will redshirt this season.
Last year, the Lions 17-11 and tied for second in the MACJC North Division with an 8-4 record (tied for second). The team advanced to the semifinals of the MACJC State tournament and NJCAA Region 23 tournament.
This year, White said he has added even more pieces to the puzzle for what he hopes is a championship mix.
"We really like our team a lot this year," White said. "We had a chance to go recruit hard and get the guys in we feel will help us compete for a championship. We like the pieces of the puzzle. We feel like we have a great bunch of kids."
White said the players are working hard and are committed to helping the program take the next step. He said the team''s versatility should be a bonus because he believes it will allow the Lions to play any style and be successful.
Brand, a 6-foot-9 center, is one of three post players who will provide plenty of size down low. Harris and Ware figure to see a lot of playing time in the backcourt on a team that White said could go 12 deep.
"CoCo is one of the best players in the state," White said. "He is going to have a big role like he did last year.
"John won''t have the role of a scorer, but that is not his strength and that is not what this tam needed. He will play major minutes and be our shutdown defender. He is a tough and hard-nosed kid who really will be a big key to the success of our team."
Both teams will open the season Nov. 2 against Jones C.C. in Scooba. The women''s game will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by the men''s game at 7:30 p.m.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.