Where’s the love?

Poll ranks defending champ Rebels seventh; Lady Mountaineers 11th

Seems nutty as a fruitcake on first glance.

Looks that way on second and third glance, too.

The first state media poll of the season was released on Tuesday, and defending Class AAA champion Maryville, with three returning starters from last year’s title team, including tournament most valuable player Jordan Damron and all-tournament selection Aaron Douglas, opens at No. 7.

Maryville coach Mark Eldridge isn’t too concerned about the rankings at this point. The Rebels weren’t ranked at all last March when they swept aside No. 4 Bradley Central, No. 6 Whites Creek and third-ranked Clarksville on successive nights to win Maryville its first state basketball crown.

Ryan Click’s 3-pointer as time expired in double overtime in the title game was stunning, yes, but the 69-66 title game win over Clarksville was no fluke.

It was a balanced, deep team with strong post play and a bevy of sweet-shooting guards that carried Maryville to the title. It’s a surprisingly similar one taking up the defense as the district race heats up.

“The one thing we don’t have is depth,” Eldridge said. “We’re working on that.”

The Rebels (13-3, 5-0 District 4AAA) got a chance to work on the depth Tuesday, bolting to a big early lead and turning back a late Lenoir City rally for a convincing, 75-61 win at James Campbell Gymnasium. It was Maryville’s second game - and victory - in as many nights.

Senior guard Wes Lambert, the third returning starter from last season’s championship team, got off to a hot start against the Panthers. Damron was quick to join in, equaling Lambert for team-high honors with 15 points by the end of the night.

Douglas, in only his third game back from football, pumped in 12, with Click adding 10.

With Douglas and 6-foot-9 junior Jay Reynolds, nine points, dominating around the basket, Maryville led 17-6 after a quarter, 43-29 at the half and 56-40 after three.

Reserves Camron Langley, 10 points and a trey, Corum Sanford and Richard Hutchens, 6-9, got plenty of work as a consequence. With district heavyweights Bearden and Farragut looming the next two weeks, their development will say much.

District play comes first, then region, then substate, then, for the fortunate few, state. Only then, Eldridge said, will Maryville entertain thoughts of repeating.

“To accomplish what we accomplished would be a stretch,” he said. “We just want to get back down there.”

Damron poured in 29 points in last year’s championship game. Tuesday, the budding prospect was more of a distributor from his point guard position, preferring to set up Lambert, Click and Langley for looks on the perimeter, Douglas and Reynolds underneath.

“When you’ve got five guys who can score 20 on a given night, you’ve got to take pride in your teammates’ successes,” Eldridge said.

Lambert’s outside shooting was key in Maryville’s early getaway. Capable of big nights on occasion a year ago, the Rebels will need him for every outing this season if the losses of Kent Basile and Tyler Maples to graduation a year ago are to be absorbed. It’s a role the senior shooting guard relishes.

“This year I’ve had to step up a lot,” he said. “Last year, we had Kent scoring for us, and Maples, too.”

Click’s winning shot was his only basket of the state tournament. That, also, is proving no fluke. This season, he’s stepped in alongside Damron and Lambert to give the Rebels three players shooting at better than 40 percent from 3-point range.

“We try to remember last year as a thing we’re trying to get back to,” Click said.

There are many reasons Maryville has the players to make another run, Damron said. One in particular, though, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

“Douglas,” he said.

The future football Vol is still playing himself into basketball shape, but he’s already ahead of last season’s pace. Last season’s state tournament field could do nothing with the 6-foot-7 football tight end underneath the basket. That in itself is enough to make Maryville unafraid of a title defense, Damron said. Then there’s the thing of having been there before.

“We definitely have the confidence now, the mentality,” Damron said.

n Where the Rebels have the early lead in area boys play, senior Katie Brooks has the Lady Mountaineers holding to a similar advantage on the girls end of the court.

The University of Maryland-Baltimore County signee buried a bucket in traffic with two seconds remaining overtime, and Heritage took out a 64-62 win at Farragut on Tuesday. The win has the Lady Mountaineers (16-3, 6-0) unbeaten atop the district. Showdowns with second place Sevier County and Maryville lie ahead. Heritage coach Rick Howard

believes Brooks is the kind of star player who can meet the challenge.

“She’s a go-to player,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

And she’s not by herself.

“When Brooks is not hitting, all the other girls seem to step up,” Howard said.

Brooks burned Farragut for 20 in the key district matchup; fellow senior Karly Stache pumped in 23, including six 3-pointers.

Brooks and Stache are a formidable one-two punch. Fellow guards Morgan Thomas and Lauren Burnette have proven just as lethal. Then there’s the inside play the Lady Mountaineers, ranked just off the top 10 in the first poll, are getting from Erica Rose.

Losing Cassie Hearon to graduation following last season left Heritage with a gaping hole in the post. The 5-foot-10 Rose is delivering a senior season few saw coming to compensate, Brooks said.

Rose, with an 18-point outing recently, raked off 16 rebounds Tuesday to help the Lady Mountaineers edge the Lady Admirals.

“She’s really stepped it up,” Brooks said. “She’s become one of the best players on the team. I’m so proud of what she’s done.”

Heritage got a big boost over the holidays with a championship run at the prestigious Bearden Super 16 tournament. It marked the first time the Lady Mountaineers have claimed a tournament crown in four seasons.

It said a lot about this team, Howard said.

“We kept making it to the championship game, but we kept losing,” Howard said. “I think they (the Lady Mountaineers) had it in their minds they wanted to go over there and win it.

“This bunch just wants to prove people wrong.”

Howard has been liberal with the minutes so far this season, and players like Tracy Hardiman, Lanie Brimer, Kelly Brackett, Katelyn Best and Kaitlyn Newsome have each come through.

“We’ve been playing a lot of people to help keep (the starters) fresh,” he said. “It helps a lot in the fourth quarter.”

And, as demonstrated Tuesday, when it’s crunch time, Brooks is as clutch as they come.

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