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Smackover to open season at Hamburg

by Jason Avery | November 18, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

Regardless of sport, coaches have always stated that the best thing about underclassmen is that they can cut their teeth and grow with experience as they become upperclassmen.

Such is the case for Smackover, who opens their season tonight at Hamburg eager to build off of coach Caleb Spradlin’s first season that saw the Bucks finish 10-10 and qualify for the regional tournament.

Now Smackover is aiming to reach the state tournament for the first time since 2016.

“We’re real excited about it. We don’t want to shy from expectations,” Spradlin said. “We feel like most nights, night in and night out that we’re going to be able to compete and have a chance to win.

“Last year, our goal was to make the regional tournament. We did that, so this year, we’re not afraid to say it, our goal is to find a way to make the state tournament now. I feel like we’ll be in the mix in our conference.

“We have a very tough and balanced conference, so we’re going to have to come ready to play every night, but we should be in position to have a chance to reach our goal of making the state tournament this year.”

Although Spradlin has only had his players for only a short time since the Bucks’ football season ended, practices have gone well.

“It’s going well so far,” Spradlin said of the Bucks’ workouts. “It really does help that we return the majority of our team. We graduated only one senior, so we’ve got the core of our group back. Last year was my first year, so we were able to implement my offense, defense and style of play.

“The kids all know that now, so the first week of practice was really smooth. It was just fine-tuning what we’ve already built on and working on trying to get the basics in to play a game in a week and a half.”

Unlike last year when the pandemic didn’t allow schools to participate in summer camps, Spradlin was able to get his team plenty of work in during this past summer.

“It was a good summer, especially from the previous summer when COVID first ramped up and we weren’t able to do anything,” Spradlin said. “We made sure this summer that we got out and were able to play and get some practices in. We ended up playing 12 games spread out through three different camps through June and July.

“It was a good summer. We had some success and were able to build on in our opinion a successful season last year. We made the regional tournament, so that was a good step in the right direction. We’re excited about this season and seeing what we can do this year.”

The Bucks have several seniors and juniors that will guide the team this season

Senior Brandon Lockhart will get the nod at point guard.

“He’s the general on the floor, and we’re getting that relationship now where he can read my mind and knows what we’re wanting to do and execute it,” Spradlin said. “It starts with him.”

Jakessio Welch, also a senior, has been a contributor since joining the varsity squad as a freshman.

“There’s a lot of experience there,” Spradlin said. “We’re leaning on him. I’m really proud of him this summer for the vocal leader that he is becoming. It means a lot to him. He knows it’s his senior year, so he’s becoming more of that vocal leader that we need.”

The Bucks have a big returnee in a literal sense with senior Anthony Eutsey.

At 6-7 and 240 pounds, Eutsey gives the Bucks a presence in the paint they didn’t have last year when Eutsey didn’t play.

For Spradlin, Eutsey is the team’s x-factor for this season.

“He really is,” Spradlin said. “Last year, especially in our conference, whether it be at Drew Central, they had a 6-8 kid inside, McGehee had a 6-5, 240-kid inside or Lake Village, who had a 6-5, 350-pound guy inside, it seemed like everybody we played in conference had that big body on the interior and we didn’t.

“A lot of times we went with five guards to get our best players on the floor, so we had a lot of tough matchups a lot of nights, but I think Anthony is definitely the x-factor for us.

“He’s had a great week of practice. He was in here in the summer during the offseason working hard and getting himself in basketball shape. Having a guy like that around the rim at that size that can help protect the rim for us, get cleanup baskets, rebounds, putbacks, it’s going to be huge with our guard play.”

Three juniors will also play key roles for the Bucks.

Thanks to his versatility, D’Kylan Hildreth, the Bucks’ leading scorer from last year, can play at a variety of spots.

“He stepped up in a lot of big games. Against the best teams, he stepped up and played his best last year,” Spradlin said. “This year, we’re going to try and find the consistency of bringing that every night. He was one vote away from being All-State last year as a sophomore.

“I know that’s a goal of his, and it’s something we’re going to need to be successful. We need him to play at a high level. He’s as versatile as any kid I have on the team. He can play point guard, he can play the five, he can play in the post. He’s very versatile, which helps us in a lot of situations.”

Daylon Curley will be expected to keep defenses honest by knocking down shots from the perimeter.

“He’s a shooter and shooters shoot,” Spradlin said. “We’re looking for him to have a big year and stretch out defenses. He’s maybe my most active defender as far as deflections and steals. He always gets his hands in the passing lane.”

Hildreth and Curley both played on the varsity as freshmen, as did Jarius Burgie, who will be tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player.

“He’s my go-to defender,” Spradlin said. “He’s going to guard the other team’s best player every night. He did a great job for us as a sophomore doing that. He loves it. He loves the challenge. He takes a lot of pride in playing defense. Offensively, he’s a slasher. He gets to the rim and creates for others, rebounds well. He’s just a really good athlete.”

The bench also has experienced players with senior Kelvonta Stringfellow and juniors Dayton Grant and RJ Boone expected to fill key roles.

“He brings some energy off the bench. He gets after it,” Spradlin said of Stringfellow. “He knows his role on the team, so there’s definitely a spot for him in this year’s rotation.”

Spradlin said Grant brings size as well as the ability to knock down shots from the perimeter as well as play inside, while Boone has plenty of versatility.

As far as the 6-3A is concerned, Spradlin said the league will once again be tough to navigate thanks to Drew Central, McGehee and Dumas, all of whom are accustomed to making deep runs in the state tournament with the Owls winning a state title over the Pirates in 2018.

“It’s going to be tough,” Spradlin said. “It’s been loaded for five or six years now and has gone deep in the state tournament. It’s really balanced. I can see up to probably six different teams in our conference finding a way to the top four to make the regional tournament. It’s going to be a battle every night.

“There are no off nights. It’s just a really tough conference. A lot of athleticism, a lot of length, size. A lot of good coaches who have been at their schools for a while. It really has got everything that you need. We’re excited to take on that challenge.”

For the Bucks to have a successful season, Spradlin said his team must stay healthy.

“We need to stay healthy. With COVID and those things around, we’re going to have to get lucky with that kind of stuff and hopefully it will stay away,” Spradlin said.

“Then just the normal injuries that you go through. Hopefully, we can stay healthy. I do feel like we do have depth, so we’ll be able to sustain a little bit, but the more healthy we are, the better chances certainly that we’re going to have.

“For us and the way I’m preaching to our guys right now is every day we’ve got to play at a championship level every day in practice, find the consistency in working hard, understanding that success doesn’t come easy and it just doesn’t come on game night.

“We’ve got to find ways to bring it every day in practice and get better. If we have that mentality, we’ll find success this season.”

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