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Boys Basketball | South Seven title up for grabs

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Marion's Rayzhaun Bardo shoots over Traijon Smith during action Thursday between Marion and Du Quoin at the Route 13 Christmas Classic boys basketball tournament at Cuss Wilson Gymnasium in Marion.

Last year the South Seven Conference was evenly split with defending champion Centralia, Marion and Mount Vernon on top with the Orphans and the Wildcats winning regional titles and the bottom three Belleville Athoff, Carbondale and Cahokia finishing way under .500.

This year the Orphans, Wildcats and Rams lost four starters each leaving the battle for the conference title wide open.

Centralia Orphans

Last year was one of the best in Orphan history with a 28-4 record - its best since 2011 when Centralia finished second at state with a 30-5 record. Centralia dominated the South Seven with a 10-0 record.

The 28 wins also tied for fifth in school history joining the 1925, 1933 and 1964 teams. The program began in 1906 with the best records being 29 wins (1939, 1940, 1952, 1955, 1961, 1962), 30 wins (1920, 1934, 1946, 2011), 32 wins (1947, 1963), 34 wins (1942), and a record 44 wins in 1941.

Coach Lee Bennett has just two part-time starters junior guards Daryle Jones and Cruz Harlen to build around this season. He also has three other players playing experience in senior guards Titus Ashford and Cayden Lusch, and senior forward Jeh’Chys Brown.

“We have a lot more questions than answers right now and will have to see how things sort themselves out,” Bennett said. “Some teams in the conference returned a good many of their guys from last year, so I would think they would be considered the teams to beat. Too early to tell what our strengths and weaknesses exactly will be, but we will find out soon enough.”

Marion Wildcats

Marion coach Gus Gillespie’s favorite quote this year could be “deja vu all over again” after losing four starters from last year’s regional championship team.

“My second year here after we won the sectional we graduated a lot of seniors and we didn’t have much coming back,” Gillespie said. “We struggled for awhile and then we ended up pretty hot. We’re probably in that boat again where we’re very, very inexperienced.”

Marion (17-13) finished last year with a tough loss to East St. Louis is the Highland sectional semifinals and tied for second place in the South Seven with a 6-4 record.

Gone are the scoring talents of four-year starters Rayzhaun Bardo and Venson Newsom along with their fellow starters Trevor Jackson and Bryson Wilson. Back is senior first team all-conference point guard Evan Noelle.

“We lost a ton of scoring,” Gillespie said. “Noelle averaged 14 or 15 a game and he’s going to have to score more points for us if we’re going to be worth a darn. Other than that I feel we are going to have score by committee and we’re capable of doing that. We’re throwing a lot at the team in practice. After two weeks we’re probably not ready to play, but we need to play.”

With the season beginning Monday at the Mascoutah Wesclin Tournament the starting lineup is still in flux. The first home game is Dec. 2nd against Belleville Althoff.

“I probably won’t have a starting lineup until after Saturday’s practice because we’ve got a slew of kids that can play,” Gillespie said. “We’re still defining roles. What I’ve got are three seniors who are all competitive kids and then I’ve got seven other kids that I can sprinkle around them.”

In the mix for the other top nine spots are two senior forwards Nehemiah Goodman and Talon Hance.

“Hance did not play last year, but he played as a sophomore and Goodman played about six games last year and had a season-ending injury, so out of my three seniors only one of them has really any varsity experience,” Gillespie said.

Also in the mix are three juniors guard Brady Jackson, forward Phoenix Hatchett and guard Nick Ucci and four sophomores point guard Reece Anthony, guard Kaden Rogowski, guard Kyan Cole and guard Jared Stacy.

“I couldn’t care less who starts and the other nine will see heavy minutes,” Gillespie said. “I could start any of those 10 guys, but I can only play five. Jackson and Hatchett contributed last year as sophomores, especially in February. Ucci was a JV player last year and he’s worked his game and is stronger, so we’ll need some minutes from him. We’ve got several sophomores that are going to have to help us win. Some of those guys will play depending on who we play ad how they’ve been performing in the JV game and in practice. We are a team that’s going to get better every month and fun to watch. I’m excited about the potential, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to reach our potential.”

Mount Vernon Rams

In addition to losing the four starters the Rams lost a total of seven seniors from the team that finished with a 22-10 record and tied for second in the South Seven with Marion with a 6-4 record.

“NJ Benson, DaShaunsae King, Cooper Hemby, Jackson Swan, Brock Holloway, Calan Kujawa and Landon Simpson were responsible for most of our scoring, rebounding and minutes,” said coach Tim Holloway.

The lone returning starter is senior guard Colin McClure. Holloway had only one other player with any significant varsity minutes in junior guard Navontae Nesbit, Jr.

“We will rely on McClure and Nesbit for leadership with our inexperienced group,” Holloway said. “Although we lack varsity experience, we like our team and expect to be competitive once we adjust to varsity competition. The South Seven is always tough and challenging.”

Belleville Althoff Crusaders

The Crusaders have been in a slump since the 2018-2019 season during which Althoff won the conference title for the fourth time in the five years. Since then the Crusaders have gone 7-19 in the conference and 22-51 overall, including 10-22 last year and 4-6 in the conference to finish fourth.

While coach Greg Leib lost just one senior from last year he also had the misfortune of losing two players who transferred to East St. Louis High School.

Leib has three starters back in three-year starter Jordan Lewis and two-year starters juniors Earl Liverpool and Taylor Powell. Newcomers to look out for are senior Lucious Dones and sophomore Patton Leib.

“We should be very competitive after we knock the rust off,” Leib said. “Most of the guys just got off the football field, but they will bring a level of toughness and the ability to compete at a high level.”

Carbondale Terriers

With the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Jim Miller two years ago and the resignation of Troy Barton after just one season, the Terriers hired former NBA player Lee Nailon, who brings multiple layers of playing and coaching experience to revive the Terriers fortunes.

Nailon is from South Bend, Indiana where he led his South Bend Clay High School team to the 1994 state championship. After playing at Butler County Community College and Texas Christian University, Nailon was drafted in the second round in 1999 by the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA.

Nailon played 306 games from 2001 to 2006 for the Hornets, Knicks, Hawks, Magic, Cavaliers, Pelicans and 76ers. He spent the next eight years playing in Israel, Russia, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, Hungary, Argentina and Mexico.

He started his coaching career as an AAU coach and continued as an assistant in the BIG3 3-on-3 basketball league and the NBA G League as well as being a participant in the NBA Assistant Coaching Program.

“I got hired in the summer, but it took some time to move from Fort Worth, Texas,” Nailon said. “I was flying in and out with the longest I stayed was seven or eight days. Still I was able to coach them when we played two tournaments in Edwardsville and Goreville. We were 4-2 in Goreville and 3-3 or 4-2 in Edwardsville.”

The last two seasons have been a struggle for the Terriers going 0-8 during the COVID spring season before improving to 7-16 overall and tied for fifth in the South Seven with a 2-8 record last year.

“This is my first year as a head coach, so I’m excited about the season,” Nailon said. “I’m not saying we’re going to win it all because it’s a process with a new coach and new system, so I’m just looking for progress. We’re going to be full-court and just out-work the other team. We’re going to be pretty much balanced offensively and defensively. We’re going to be much more scrappier than anything.”

The Terriers open the season at the Roxanna Thanksgiving Tournament Nov. 21 and the hometown fans will get a chance to see the new-look Terriers with they host Cahokia Dec. 2nd.

Nailon’s first team is a veteran unit with four seniors and five juniors, including three returning starters and a transfer from the SIRR-Ohio Division defending champion Murphysboro Red Devils that finished 28-3 after losing in the 2A sectional semifinals by three points to state champion Nashville.

“We have a senior/junior team, so they are battle tested,” Nailon said. “I plan to play a little bit of everybody according to the situation. For the most part we’ve got a little size and length. We got lucky with our shortest players being 6-1. You can do a lot of things on the floor with size. We’re pretty strong at every position and should be a fast-paced team.”

The returning starters are junior 6-2 shooting guard DeCarl Payne, senior 6-1 point guard Jeremiah Tate and junior 6-5 forward Jaden Patterson. Six-foot, four-inch junior Levi Teague has a leg up at No. 3 guard.

“I’m looking for Tate to have a good year both on offense and defense,” Nailon said. “He’s a senior, so we’re looking to him to be a leader. I want him to set the tone.”

Murphysboro transfer senior 6-7 forward/center Antoine “AJ” Walker is battling for the other starting job. Walker averaged six points a game last year and was especially good on defense with several games of three or more blocks. He was selected SICA All-South last year.

Also in the mix are seniors 6-3 guard/forward Malik Crane-Walker (no relation), 6-5 center Evan Torres and 6-3 guard/forward Reonte Walker (no relation). Six-foot, three-inch junior Tenell Greene will be the backup at point guard and 6-4 junior Mikey Greene is in the mix at center.

Cahokia Comanches

Over the last 18 seasons Darian Nash led the Comanches to 244 victories, including a second place finish at state in 2012-13 with a 35-5 record. Former Belleville West assistant coach (2007-12) Darren Wilson takes over the team and will have one returning starter and three seniors to turn around a team that went 4-22 overall and finished tied for fifth in the South Seven with a 2-8 record.

“I’m happy the numbers are up from previous years with 35 kids on all levels this year,” Wilson said. “We’re a young team that has a few things to learn with a new coach and system, but they are bonding to the system and are getting better and better as the season approaches.”

The returning starter is senior guard Omarion Gooden. The remainder of the starting lineup will be sophomore guard D’Kyren Kizer, senior guard/forward Jerry Butler, senior guard Nygel Cohen and sophomore guard Armond Smith.

The top three players off the bench are all sophomores guard Omar Nixon, guard/forward Zion Taylor and guard Cornelius Griffin.

“Everyone in the lineup can score,” Wilson said. “I have a gang of freshmen that is very capable of playing with five that are going to play varsity. The best one is guard Corrion Raiford.

“I’m guard heavy, so small ball is going to be our forte,” Wilson said. “We’re going to be very fast, so we can run the floor. We’re going to have to be scrappy on defense in order to be successful.”


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