The Daily Record's "Hoops Preview" series begins with a glance at both Harnett Central basketball teams, who come into the new season with opposing outlooks.
ANGIER — A shortened 2020-21 slate was sliced even shorter for Will Gage’s Harnett Central boys basketball team this past February.
COVID-19 protocols caused an abrupt close to a trying 1-6 campaign that left more questions than answers.
“It was tough for us because we ended the year on quarantine. ... And so, it was hard to get into a good flow,” Gage said following a recent practice.
With multiple pauses interrupting the season, Central suffered five straight losses to begin the year. Signs of encouragement were present during the skid; however, as three of those contests were decided by six points or less.
Gage now possesses a senior-laden group, led by the team’s sole all-conference performer Quez Jones who had a team-leading 4.4 steals per contest.
“We’re gonna have to get him to set the tone for defensive production,” Gage said of his “defensive spark” point guard.
“For us to be competitive in games, we’re gonna have to set the tempo ourselves and we’re gonna have to play really good defense for four quarters. Any night that does not happen, we’re not gonna have much of a chance to win.”
Fellow upperclassmen Seven McClain, Chris Mills and Xavier Bailey started alongside Jones last season and each provides complementary skill sets.
McClain was the Trojans’ only double-digit scorer and figures to carry the offensive load again as a senior wing.
Meanwhile, Xavier Bailey and Chris Mills return as the leading rebounders, providing height and strength in the post.
During the team’s only victory, a 53-49 win over in-county rival Western Harnett on Feb. 2, Bailey finished with a season-high 18 points to go with eight rebounds.
“That was probably our best game of the year, as far as effort and execution — and we need that kind of stuff every night,” Gage said.
Senior reserves Xavier Harris and Cohen Walker also figure to hold key roles off the bench for a veteran squad searching for redemption.
“I think a lot of these guys realize it’s their last chance to do anything and we’re hoping that they’ll take that to heart and that’ll translate into production because of their effort,” Gage said.
Central opens its season at home against Western on Nov. 23 in a first-round matchup of the Bennie Pollock Memorial Tournament.
Shay Ward is one of two starters returning for a Harnett Central girls basketball team that finished 9-3 overall, while taking second place in the Tri-County 3A Conference with a 7-2 mark.
The top three scorers from that group departed via graduation, including two-time All-Record Girls Basketball Player of the Year Syniah McMiller.
“We have to work as a team because we got a lot of underclassmen, so we got to pick them up and boost some intensity,” Ward said following a practice last week.
The 5-foot-6 combo guard is expected to fill the floor general position that was mastered by former Lady Trojans standout Brittany Mills.
Central coach Chelsey Cabe, a point guard alum for the Lady Trojans, realizes the importance of the position and how big of an impact Ward will have for a rebuilding team.
“Shay needs to command the floor on offense — be strong with the ball,” Cabe said.
“She’s gonna find that a lot of times, they’re gonna look to her for leadership and if she looks confident and she looks poised, then the rest of them will be. ... So, she’s just really the foundation of a lot of things.”
Ward averaged just under seven points, four rebounds and two steals per contest last season, helping the Lady Trojans reach the postseason for a fourth straight year.
She says the group is pushing for at least a top-two finish in the newly-formed All American Conference, which would secure yet another state playoffs position.
For that to happen, Cabe needs the Lady Trojans to be more multi-faceted and use their exceptional speed.
“We have no true post, so if we can just be scrappy, conditioned, physically fit and a defensively strong team, then I think we’ll push a lot of our offense from that,” Cabe said.
Senior wings Ivanna Jones and KeKe Snead figure to be instrumental in implementing Cabe’s full-court pressure defense. While Jo’Nese Monroe returns as one of the few reliable outside shooters.
In addition to matching up with all of the Harnett County teams this season, the Lady Trojans’ postseason hopes hang on how they contend with 3A powerhouses like Terry Sanford and E.E. Smith.
“You win the winnable games. And those games where you’re gonna struggle, you have to make progress every time you play,” Cabe said.
Central starts the 2021-22 slate against Western during the opening game of this year’s Harnett County Tipoff.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910 230-2040.