by T. Scott Boatright
Cedar Creek is set to open its boys basketball season on Tuesday at home against Beekman Charter.
But Cougars head coach Robert Mitcham still doesn’t know exactly how many players will dress for his team.
That’s because a majority of his team is still out on the gridiron preparing for Friday night’s Division IV football playoff opener at Ouachita Christian.
“I only have three varsity players right now,” Mitcham said. “I’ve got 11 still playing football and two still running cross country. I mean I’m tickled to death for the football team. They only have three seniors, and they needed to make the playoffs as well as they had been playing at the end of the season. It’s going to be a tough start. My hands are just tied until they’re done.
“But I’d love to see the football team beat OCS and keep rolling. We had them beat in the regular-season game and let them get away with a long touchdown in the last minute.”
So right now Mitcham is rolling with his lone senior, Hayden McCluskey and two juniors — Davis Walsworth, who was a starter last season, and Jack Echols, a transfer student that Mitcham still is waiting to find out if he’ll be eligible this season.
“We’re going to be 10 or 11 deep, and we’re going to have some time for the first time,” Mitcham said. “We’ve been bullied around ever since I’ve been here. We’re going to have six players in that 6-2 to 6-3 range. And they’re football players, so they’re pretty solid. Once we get them going we’ll be fine. It’s just one of those things that until we get them back in basketball shape and mentality, it’s going to be tough.”
Mitcham said the “straw that will stir the Cougars’ drink” will be his third returning starter, point guard Carter Hill.
“He’s a 6-2 junior with long arms,’ Mitcham said. “He’s a menace on defense and gets to the basket anytime he wants. He’s not a great outside shooter, but he knows how to find people
Mitcham expects a couple of other Cougar football team members to play important roles for his basketball squad, which went 9-12 overall and 3-8 in District 2-1A last year, reaching the Division IV playoffs but falling 79-23 at Crescent City Christian in their postseason opener.
“We’re just going to be behind the eight-ball to start, but some of these new football players will help once they’re out there,” Mitcham said of the way this season will start. “Bryce Rushing came from West Ouachita and has good size, and we have the quarterback — Caden Middleton, who might not be the best basketball player but is a great athlete and doesn’t mind banging.
“It’s just going to be a matter of getting the chemistry down. We had a great summer, so these guys have played together. We’re not totally starting from scratch. They’re just not going to be in basketball shape.”
Cedar Creek girls basketball coach Gene Vandenlandenberg likes to keep things low-key — never too high during the good times and never too low in the bad.
But after going 99-17 and 8-4 in the playoffs over the past four seasons, it’s hard to envision the Lady Cougars being anything other than the perennial power they’ve been for years now.
And having returning senior and Class 1A all-state selection Sarah Adams, who averaged 21.0 points per game last season and has started for the Lady Cougars since her freshman season, back to quarterback the team has to bring some hopes to her head coach.
“Sarah is back and is unquestionably our team leader,” Vandenlandenberg said. “We don’t have some of the size we’ve had in the past. We’ve been fortunate to have size, but we have four starters coming back, so most of the team returns.”
One thing Vandenlandenberg won’t have to work with is the size he’s had in recent years in departed Lady Cougars like Anna Larr Roberson, now a Louisiana Tech Lady Techster, Lauren Menzina, Allie Freeman and Riley Spradlin.
But he does have four returning starters in Adams, senior center Millie Venters, Allie Furr and Lizzie McAdams.
“Allie is a really good defender and great role player,” Vandenlandenberg said. “She scores a little, gets some steals and usually defends the opponent’s top scorer. She’s a three-year starter. She’s athletic and is such a good defender.”
Vandenlandenberg feels McAdams could also play a key role for the Lady Cougars.
“She started the last half of the season last year and has really looked good in our early preseason practices and scrimmages,” Vandenlandenberg said about McAdams. “She’s a forward who can play a little guard if we need her to.”
And while the Lady Cougars might not be as big as they’ve been in the past, Vandenlandenberg does return a player he feels could be solid in the paint for Cedar Creek.
“She’s a good athlete and got the opportunity to start some last year because of injuries and she got better,” Vandenlandenberg said about freshman post player Elli Dickerson.
But it will still be Adams sitting in the driver’s seat for the Lady Cougars.
“We try to play up and down — what we call ‘organized chaos.’ We get in Sarah’s hands and we just go,” Vandenlandenberg said. “We trust Sarah and give her the ball and let her make decisions. She can score it, she’s a good passer and defender, and she’s got some girls around her that can handle the ball and score a little bit.
“In scrimmages we’ve had three girls scoring in double figures, and that’s a pretty good sign that we’re not just one-dimensional behind Sarah only. I mean Sarah’s a great player, but she sets up her teammates really well and makes them better.
A slightly smaller team has caused Vandenlandenberg to make some slight adjustments on the defensive side of the court.
“We’re not playing as much zone as we have in previous years,” he said. “We’re pressing a little more and trying some other defenses to get the best play we can out of this group of girls we have this season.”
Vandenlandenberg said the team has looked good in early practices and scrimmages, but is still anxious to start the season next Tuesday at home against Beekman Charter and see what his squad can do in real-game action.
“We’ve looked all right — pretty good, getting ready for the season, but we also have a lot of room to get quite a bit better,” Vandenlandenberg said. “And that’s not a bad thing, especially for this time when the season hasn’t quite started yet. We’ve looked good, but we won’t truly know until we tip things off for real.”