Letcher County Central boys’ basketball coach Robert Hammonds feels his Cougar team has enough talent to compete for a Sweet Sixteen berth come March.
“Honestly, we felt like we were a free or two shot from going to Rupp Arena last year,” said Hammonds, who is in his second year here. “Those are the growing pains you have to do. We won 22 games last year; we had the second most wins in the region. We’ve got so many kids back and they know what it takes; they know what to expect. We want to build on that and become one of the teams (sportswriters) always talk about when they talk about the 14th Region.”
The boys’ 53rd District returns to a five-team format this season with the June Buchanan School resuming varsity play this season after playing only a junior varsity schedule last season because of low numbers.
The private school located on the campus of Alice Lloyd College at Pippa Passes in Knott County returns all five junior varsity starters, led by 6-5 freshman Chance Cornett in the paint. The size surrounding Cornett drops off with no returning player more than six feet tall. Freshmen Taylor Thornsbury and Austin Turner and sophomore Brazton Hayes will be joined by seventh-grader Dalton Cornett.
Much of the preseason talk in the 53rd District has centered not around the powerful teams returning in Letcher County or Knott County, but rather the future success of the Cordia Lions, a team which will be guided this season by new coach Rodrick Rhodes, a former University of Kentucky player who was coached by former Wildcat coach Rick Pitino in the 1990’s.
Rhodes, who never quite lived up to his highly-regarded athletic potential at UK, finally turned his back on all the stress and pressure in Lexington that UK players endure and transferred. After graduating from Southern Cal, Rhodes enjoyed a short professional career. Rhodes spent the past decade in the college coaching ranks before stepping down to accept the head job with small-school Cordia.
Rhodes inherits an adequate number of small but experienced players from former coach Denny Fugate, who now is at Breathitt County. The Lions, who finished 7-16 last year, return 5-11 senior guard Marcus Sumner who averaged 20 points per gabe last year. Seniors Mat Lucas, Dalton Davidson and Josh Mullins will be joined by 6-2 sophomore center Derek Combs.
The Jenkins Cavaliers graduated only Chris Ramey off last season’s 7-18 club. Junior point guard Ryan Bentley, who averaged 14 points last season, returns along with juniors Cody Sexton and Blaine Gibbs. Sexton is a 6-3 guard who averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds. Gibbs is a 6-4 center who averaged nine points and 7 rebounds. Juniors Casey Hall, Josh Collins and Tim Seals and sophomore Jacob Campbell also return.
Despite placing just two of the five district teams (LCCHS third and KCCHS fifth) in the 14th Region preseason rankings’ top five (as published by The Cats’ Pause magazine), LCC’s Hammonds feels the 53rd district may be the strongest district in the region.
“Obviously, Knott County has some good players and Cordia’s got some good players and Jenkins has everybody back but one; they have nine juniors,” said Hammonds. “So, our district is very competitive, probably the best in the 14th Region. And, to be real honest with you, I think the 14th Region this year is probably the best it’s been in a long time. Your top eight, nine teams will all have very successful years, I think.”
The Cats’ Pause ranks Breathitt County just behind Knott County in sixth place in the preseason 14th Region rankings — followed by Leslie County, Wolfe County, Lee County and Estill County. Perry County Central and Buckhorn were ranked one-two with Hazard fourth.
Hammonds will be ably assisted again this year by a very talented staff that he says provides both the support and guidance that nurtures a feeling of family within the team that should lead to excellent team chemistry and to another successful season.
“I’ve got a great staff,” he said. “Brian Johnson and Jerry Bentley both have been head coaches. Both have been in (competitive) situations before. Winston Lee has been here and played here (Whitesburg). I think I’ve got the best staff in the 14th Region. They’re always very positive with the kids. They’re always willing to do anything it takes. We go late nights; we’re always out scouting. They help in practices and the kids go to them, also. We always say we break down on family and our assistant coaches are a major part of that. We’re here for (the players) and we feel like our kids really play hard for us and we appreciate that and we just feel like we’ve got a family this year.”