IN TH IS CORNER

It’s one of the most wonderful times of the year with basketball season starting this week.

And if it’s anything like last year, we’re in for a doozy.

Last year was the best county basketball season since Croatan came on the scene in 1998.

It was the first time four teams advanced to the third round in the same season, the first time every team finished with a winning record and the first time five of the six finished in the top three of their respective conferences.

The East Carteret (12-1) and West Carteret (11-2) boys each won league titles, the Croatan girls (13-3) were the runner-up in their league, and the Croatan boys (8-5) and West girls (7-3) took third apiece. The East girls (8-7) placed fourth in their eight-team conference.

The six county teams went a combined 59-21 to register an almost 75% winning percentage.

Can we expect more of the same this year?

It might be hard to match it.

After all, East moved up to 2A and Croatan moved up to 3A after realignment, and there are new conferences.

Nine of the top 20 girls in the county are no longer playing, including three of the top five in Croatan’s Logan Howard and Haley Cousins and West Carteret’s Cayman Montgomery.

The boys lost 10 of their 20 players in the county and two of the top five, including East’s Bennie Brooks and West’s James Kenon.

Kenon was instrumental in the phenomenal run to the Patriots’ first regional final appearance in 31 years, going for 18 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in a 63-45 win over previously undefeated Northern Guilford (16-1) in the third round.

He helped West get within a whisper of the state championship game with seven points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in a 72-69 overtime loss to Northwood in the regional final.

The absence of the 6-5, 220-pound center can’t be underestimated, but the Patriots still look loaded.

A fourth consecutive 3A Coastal Conference title appears likely, and with a little luck, another fantastic run through the playoffs is possible.

Look for News-Times Player of the Year Jaxon Ellingsworth to have a monster season. The 6-8 senior forward averaged 21.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.1 rebounds last season.

As for the other returning conference champion, the East boys go from the 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference to the 1A/2A Coastal Plains Conference and rejoin old league foes Pamlico, Northside-Pinetown, Southside, Jones Senior and Lejeune.

The Mariners feature a superb sophomore class in Shamel Baker, Charles Matheka and Cole Jernigan. Those three will try and fill the massive shoes left behind by Brooks.

Baker had one of the best freshman seasons in county history last year, averaging 16.6 points, 4.3 assists and 2.5 steals for a team that went undefeated at 12-0 until a 63-61 loss to Riverside-Martin in the third round of the 1A state playoffs.

Add Jacob Nelson and Josef Lawrence, and East has a good starting five, but depth will certainly be an issue.

The main competition in the way of a third straight league crown is longtime rival Pamlico.

Prior to last year’s wacky pandemic schedule, the Hurricanes had won three conference championships in a row, going 32-4 in league play and 55-22 overall in that time.

Coach Ear Sadler has led Pamlico to two state runner-up finishes in the past 14 years, including 2018.

Speaking of the Hurricanes.

If the East girls want to win a league title, they will likely have to get past their old conference foe.

Coach April Rose has led the team to eight consecutive league championships and an eye-popping 91-1 conference record in that time.

Pamlico sports a 45-game league winning streak. Its last conference loss came, ironically enough, versus East on Feb. 8, 2017. The Mariners broke a 47-game league winning streak for Pamlico that night, and beat their rival for the first time in more than five years.

The Hurricanes have won nearly 90% of their games over the past eight years, going 190-23, went to three straight state finals from 2017-2019 and won it all in 2019.

The team lost its top three scorers from last year, but as you can see, in Bayboro, they don’t rebuild, they reload.

There’s also Northside-Pinetown.

The last time the Mariner girls played the Panthers, they finished with just two players on the floor after six fouled out in the 51-45 loss in the third round of the 1A playoffs.

Northside brings back its top three players from that squad.

And so, as you can see, if the Mariners are going to win the Coastal Plains, they will have to earn it.

The race for the top spot in the 3A Coastal on the girls’ side seems to be wide open.

West should be able to vie for the title with an experienced crew returning, but it’s hard to say. Croatan appears to be in rebuilding mode after losing Howard and Cousins, but coach Andrew Gurley’s patented 2-3 zone could keep the team in contention.

Don’t be surprised if Richlands ends up as the league champion.

The Croatan boys have been on the upswing of late.

The Cougars made the playoffs two years ago for the first time since 2013, thanks to a 6-8 league record and fifth-place finish. Last season, they earned the program’s first winning record since 2013, and just the fourth overall in 23 years, with an 8-5 regular season mark. They also matched the 2013 league finish by ending up third.

The team lost six of its top seven scorers, however, so building on that success will probably be difficult.

(Send comments or questions to jj@thenewstimes.com or follow him on Twitter @jjsmithccnt.)

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