By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Oktaha returned to state last season after a three-year absence. The Tigers’ stay was short as they were blown out in the quarterfinals by eventual Class 2A champion Northeast, 75-49.
It wasn’t like they were the only one. Preston was a 31-point victim in the semifinals, and Haworth a 28-point loser in the title game.
Four starters return for the Tigers with the idea of having a longer stay, and that’s enough to put Oktaha, 24-7 a year ago, at the top of the Phoenix’s area preseason poll.
Led by senior Blake Pittman, an All-Phoenix team member in 2011-12 who averaged 14.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists, the Tigers should again contend for a state tournament berth. Dustin Leach is a 6-0 forward who averaged 12.2 points and 6 rebounds.
Forwards Caleb Shoemake (6-3, senior) and Devon Fry (6-4, senior) are returning starters with height. But they’re not the dominant inside player the program has missed since Weston Elam in 2008, the last time Oktaha made the state semifinals.
That might change with the transfer of 6-foot-3 Christian McIntosh, a physical, scrappy, double-figure scorer at Eufaula who has just been released to play after tearing his ACL.
“He gives us that sort of player but our guards are going to have to learn to use him,” Oktaha coach Jim Glover said. “It’s a situation where you may have to give up some of your freelancing to wait to get this guy in there where we can get him the ball. With Weston we’d go when we could and if we couldn’t we’d make sure he touched it before we got anything.”
Pittman, the freelancer of freelancers, played with McIntosh in AAU ball and should have trouble developing chemistry.
Even with the returning talent, Glover is cautious.
“Every year is a new year and that’s the thing here,” the coach said. “I haven’t been real pleased with the scrimmages, especially on the defensive side. Offensively we’re just learning to play better together.
“But I like my group. We’ve got some young kids who will step in and give us some quality minutes. We won’t ask them to come take a game over but just go in and not hurt us.”
Keys, ranked second in the poll, had a much closer call with last year’s 3A champion, losing in double overtime to Centennial in the quarterfinals. Trevor Eubanks, the runner-up for All-Phoenix MVP, returns for his senior season after averaging 15 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. The 6-0 guard also has Payton Ragsdale, a 6-6 forward (12.8 ppg, 6 rpg) and the team’s defensive specialist, Tyler Blankenship (6-2, Sr. F/G) back after injuring a knee halfway through the season. He averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds. If he and Mason Turman, a 6-3 senior forward who has battled multiple injuries stay healthy, the Cougars could be right there again.
“We haven’t meshed yet because all but two are in football, and I’m an assistant myself,” said Cougars coach Duane Jones. “Last year we were kind of just happy to get as close to beating Centennial as we did. This year I think the kids will want more than that and I think we certainly have the tools to make it happen.”
No. 3 Porter’s road to state got stopped by Oktaha in the area consolation finals, but the Pirates have two-time All-Phoenix MVP Jason Richardson back. The 6-0 guard averaged 24.5 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists as a junior.
Gone is Erick Broadnax, a 6-8 senior now at Connors State. A lack of that height will make coach Jason Jack’s squad an attack of five guards utilizing speed and quickness.
Clint Miller and Kevon Bates will complement Richardson in the lineup.
“He’s put on 10 to 15 pounds but he’s still as shifty and quick as he’s been and he’s made an impression everywhere he’s gone all off-season,” Jack said. “I think he’s proven to people to be not just a good player in this area but one of the toughest covers in the state.”
Porter and Oktaha will meet home-and-home in the regular season and have the opportunity to play in two tournaments as well as another matchup or two in the 2A playoffs.
No. 4 Haskell was another quarterfinal loser in 3A in the Haymakers’ first state trip since 1991. New coach Jay Dixon replaces Steve Goss, who is now at Edmond North. Alex Wheeland and Michael Love are the two returning starters off that team but big pieces in that run. Wheeland averaged 10.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.9 steals and 4.8 assists as a 6-0 junior. Michael Love, entering his senior season, will bring back an intimidating style in the paint where he averaged 4.3 blocks and 7 rebounds. His offensive numbers need to improve. He averaged 5.8 a game a year ago.
The departure of eight seniors off a three-year run that produced two 6A state tournament teams hurt No. 5 Muskogee, which suffered through an 8-15 mark last season. Lloyd Williams left after one season and wound up on the South Dakota staff opposite his wife Amy who is the head women’s coach there.
Josh Berry takes over and has a core of three impressive juniors in guards David Beasley (5-11) and Anthony King (6-2) as well as Tramal Ivy, a 6-5 junior. Beasley averaged 16 points and 4 assists. King 12 points and five rebounds and Ivy 13 points and 7 rebounds. Ivy was the lone inside presence last season and that more than anything else hampered them as they lost 13 of their final 15 contests. Some rapidly improving big men in Aaron Givens (6-6) and Lavare Reed (6-4) will help improve that area.
“The key for me is being consistent and disciplined in everything I do. As long as they can see that and they see you’re genuinely there, they’ll come around and the truth is, I’m seeing some of that already,” Berry said just before the end of football season and before Ivy, King and several others came out.
No. 6 Fort Gibson struggled to a 15-12 mark and was eliminated in the 4A regional consolation finals. Jordan Hill (11 points, 4 rebounds), who recently signed with Oklahoma Baptist, is one of three starters back. The others are 5-10 senior Collin Abdallah and Eric Hudson, a 6-4 senior.
No. 7 Sequoyah will return three starters but its deep rotation of a year ago was hit hard by graduation. Still, Indians coach Jay Herrin thinks a young group will help him reload and typify the run-and-shoot system that has been the core of the team’s success in 3A.
Starters returning are Niko Hammer, a 5-9 senior guard who averaged 6 points and 4 assists and Ryan Helsley, a 6-2 senior forward who averaged 7 points. Caisen Green, a 6-1 junior who averaged 10.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals, awaits an appeal after being one of several Sequoyah athletes ruled ineligible on transfer rules.
“We’ve got some guys who were behind this group who haven’t had a chance yet but they’re good players who’ve been brought up in our system,” Herrin said. “I’m excited about what I see.
“We hit an uncharacteristic bump in regionals last year. We just peaked a little early when we beat four or five ranked teams down the stretch. All in all, this group has a chance of getting us back to state which is always our goal here.”
Braggs was one area team that opened a week ago. Oktaha begins play Tuesday at Crowder. Most teams won’t start until the week of Nov. 25.
This year’s sleeper?
A darkhorse to keep an eye on is Warner. The Eagles were only 9-14 last year but have two double-figure scorers led by 6-3 senior Grey Denton (11.5, 6 rebounds). Kyle Taylor, a 5-8 guard, averaged 11 points and is one of those still playing football.
A strong off-season in both sports has James Bliss’ team faster, stronger and quicker and with a mentality of winning coming from an unbeaten football campaign thus far in 2012.
Some other area players to watch:
Cody Faries, 6-4, Sr., F, Eufaula — 12 ppg.
Forest Paden, 6-1, Sr. G, Eufaula — 10 ppg.
Braylon Warrior, 5-8, Sr., G, Checotah, 12.6 ppg.
Lain Wright, 5-11, Sr., G, Tahlequah — 14.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.2 apg.
Chris Vance, 6-0, Sr., G, Hulbert — 10.6 ppg, 3 spg.
Craig Potts, 6-5, Sr., C, Hulbert — 11.4 ppg
Bill Muse Jr., 6-1, So., F/G, Hilldale — 11 ppg.
Jake Johnson, 6-4, Jr., Gore — 8.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg.
Derrick Jestice, 6-4, Sr., Gore — 9.1 ppg.
Payton York, 5-9, So., G, Braggs — 12.0 ppg.
Phoenix Super 7
5. Fort Gibson