Tony Harrell is stepping into the 2019-20 basketball season as skipper of one of the state's most highly regarded AAAA teams, coaching a squad he described as "really good" in terms of energy and effort.
North Augusta High School's boys are ranked fifth in the preseason poll, heading into a Dec. 3 game at Richmond Academy, in Augusta, and Omarion Byrd may be the most experienced teen on the court, as he heads into his fourth season as a varsity player. Byrd, a 5-foot-9 guard, is a senior, and has two seniors with him among the most seasoned veterans: Kaleb Cooper, a 6-foot-2 forward; and Myles Cooper, a 5-foot-7 point guard.
"We've got a lot of experience with some guys," said Harrell, assessing a squad with plenty of returners from the 2018-19 unit, which went 23-6 overall and cruised to the Region 5-AAAA title, going 10-0, and had an average score of 65-56 through the course of the season.
"Our energy and effort level has been really good," the coach said, a few minutes after the Jackets' Monday practice. "We've got a lot of returning players ... so we do have some leadership this year, which I like. Our biggest thing is getting out and playing games now, doing it against somebody else. We've been practicing against each other for three or four weeks now."
Harrell's bunch came up barely short, 69-68, in its first game of the season – a Saturday contest against Glenn Hills, in Augusta. The second matchup was to be Tuesday on the road versus Richmond Academy.
The coach also offered some insight on Region 5-AAAA, which he described as "wide open" in terms of competitiveness. "Brookland-Cayce's got a lot of returning players. Aiken's got a couple of new faces this year that have come to their program, so those two guys are a good challenge. Midland Valley has a lot back from last year. They're going to be better."
Harrell's senior corps also includes guard Tony Caldwell, who stands 5-foot-7; and forward Charles Hammond, 6-foot-3.
The squad is packed with juniors. On board are wing Jordan Wilburn, 6-foot-3; forward Naijah Buchanan, 6-foot-9; forward Terry Richberg, 6-foot-3; guard Matt Baskett, 6-foot; guard Jalen Robinson, 5-foot-11; and guard Colin Rodrigues, 6-foot-1.
Sophomore Chase Tillman, a 6-foot-5 center, may be the tallest Jacket of the season. His varsity classmate is Austin Harrell, a 5-foot-10 guard.
"We've got some long, athletic guys," Harrell said. "We're not overly big, but we've got guys that can jump. We've got guys with a long wingspan that can cover up ground on the court. We're just an athletic team. We shoot the ball pretty well, but if we're going to be as good as we want to be, then we've got to be better defensively."
Harrell's supporting cast includes assistant coaches Micheal Rouse, Stephen "Master Guns" Thompson (also known through his role with the school's Naval Junior ROTC program), Christian Davis and Chris Anderson (the junior varsity coach). The coaching staff is packed with former Yellow Jacket players: Harrell, Rouse, Davis and Anderson.
The 2018-19 squad reached the third round of the playoffs, slamming Dreher 77-41 in the first round and getting past Orangeburg-Wilkinson 59-51 in the second. The final contest was an 83-68 loss against Darlington.
This season's action continues Friday at 8:30 p.m., with a game against Mauldin. Also on the near radar at home are a Saturday match at 7 p.m. against Dorman, a Dec. 12 contest against Silver Bluff and a Dec. 13 match against Richmond Academy.
Ridge View is the state's top-ranked boys squad at the AAAA level, in the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association's poll. Following, in order, are Wren, Greenville, Travelers Rest, North Augusta, Lower Richland, Myrtle Beach, Marlboro County, Lancaster and Orangeburg-Wilkinson.