Heading through the first full week of 2016, high school basketball teams within the Mideastern Conference are beginning to jockey into position for a successful mid-season push.
As preseason outlooks came to fruition with the New Hanover boys and Hoggard girls looking to stay atop the division following impressive performances during the holiday break, the other local programs have their work cut out if they hope to compete for a league title.
The run and gun style of New Hanover put the Wildcats in a position to beat one of the top teams in the state and the eventual 22nd Annual Leon Brogden Holiday Tournament Champions, but veteran experience for the Cary Imps outlasted the Wildcats youth down the stretch in one of the most competitive matchups over Christmas.
New Hanover brings a high level of intensity to the floor and their challenging non-conference slate has the black and orange poised to make a run for top spot in the division.
“We start three sophomores in our lineup and are still looking for some consistency coming off the bench,” said New Hanover Coach Kirk Angel. “I think our schedule to date has definitely helped prepare us and understand what it’s going to take in order to reach our goals, and that’s to get to a regional final.”
In just his second season, Ramello Williams has quickly become one of the rising stars inside the Mideastern Conference, with Shaq Hampton and Accheaus Fields providing key attributes to the team. Blake Smith is the top shooter in the area and showed his ability during the matchup against Cary when the senior sharpshooter sank 7 of 10 shots from behind the arc on his way to a season-best 25 points.
New Hanover has a 10-3 mark and 2-0 record in league play along with Hoggard. On paper, the Vikings match up with anyone in the league and bring the two biggest threats to the frontcourt in seniors Xavier Johnson and A.J. Frye.
However, Hoggard needs to bring its game face for an entire 32 minutes of basketball each time they take the floor after letting an 18-point lead slip away in their final outing of 2015.
“It’s really about being consistent,” said Hoggard Coach Brett Queen. “We had just one full practice in about three weeks because of the holidays, our trip to North Myrtle Beach and the Brogden Tournament. It’s good to get back in the gym to work on some things as we get ready to get back into our conference schedule.”
Ashley (1-1, 7-6) has hit an early season rut, dropping its last five games, but the Screaming Eagles have a resilient bunch and look to turn things around this week with a trip Hampstead for a date with Topsail.
Laney (1-0, 7-5) grabbed just one win during the Brogden Tournament to stay above the .500 mark this season. The Bucs have shown signs of potential early in games, but need to continue that effort in the second half if they hope to finish in the top of conference, above teams like West Brunswick, South Brunswick and Topsail.
Laney’s Marquan Miller was sidelined because of injury and missed five games prior to the holiday tournament. His return should help the Bucs regain some composure with a tough week ahead against New Hanover and West Brunswick.
The Trojans grabbed three straight wins during the Cape Fear Academy Holiday Challenge to get back on track, including a 55-52 victory over Harrells Christian on the final day of the tournament. The Trojans moved to 7-3 and look to grab their first conference result with games against Hoggard and Laney this week.
South Brunswick and Topsail are in position to play spoiler as both teams are a longshot to claim a division crown, but bring effort to the floor each time out with a chance to ruin someone’s hope of a conference championship.
After splitting the last two Leon Brogden Tournament Titles, Hoggard and New Hanover have the bullseye on their backs as the favorites to win conference. After the Wildcats defeated Hoggard in the tournament championship last year, the Vikings used that setback to fuel a run to the 4A East Regional.
With Hoggard winning this year’s title, will New Hanover be able to garner that same spark to guide them to a conference crown?
Both teams are off to a 2-0 start in league play, while Hoggard has won four straight to improve to 11-3 overall. The Vikings bring plenty of depth to the floor, with Emma Haywood, Aleah Thompson and Tara Poteat serving as key contributors from last year’s team. Alisha Fisher has brought a much needed spark off the bench with her ability to score, while Blair Barefoot, Mia Boone and Keely Britt provide the depth Hoggard lacked one year ago.
New Hanover junior guard Ayonna Cotten has quietly put herself into contention for Player of the Year honors, but the Wildcats need a better effort from its role players if they want to compete for a league championship. Sophomores Azariah Fields and Amani Muhammed have the ability to fill that void along with Kayleigh Merrell, Meredith Criner and Michelle Jacobs, but New Hanover needs to take care of business night in and night out if they hope to stay in contention.
The Wildcats head to Laney on Tuesday, then play host to a much-improved Topsail team on Friday night.
Topsail started off 7-0, but dropped two straight games inside the league before the holidays, while West Brunswick has also shown signs of improvement from one year ago.
Laney and Ashley are middle-of-the-road teams at this point. The Bucs have struggled to score the rock consistently, but bring intensity on the defensive end of the floor, which keeps them in the game on most nights. Ashley has dealt with a key injury that has hurt their scoring efforts, but the Screaming Eagles still bring size in the paint and an athletic back court that could make them a team to look out for down the stretch.
Team Conference Overall
Laney 1-0 7-5
Hoggard 2-0 9-4
New Hanover 2-0 10-3
Ashley 1-1 7-6
West Brunswick 0-1 7-3
Topsail 0-2 4-8
South Brunswick 0-2 6-6
Team Conference Overall
Hoggard 2-0 11-3
New Hanover 2-0 9-4
Laney 1-1 6-6
Ashley 1-1 4-7
W. Brunswick 0-1 6-5
Topsail 0-2 9-3
S. Brunswick 0-2 0-7