By Marion Wilhoite
Columbia State Community College’s men’s basketball team had an impact season a year ago even though first-year Coach Winston Neal’s squad had no returning players from the previous season.
Though Neal’s philosophy is to recruit players who will qualify Division I and possibly will need just one solid season in the classroom and the court to merit an opportunity for a four-year school, another outstanding season with postseason aspirations.
Basketball fans can gain an early outlook on the Chargers come Tuesday when Western Kentucky Community and Technical College invades from Paducah for a 7:30 p.m. game.
WKCTC played exhibition games against Bethel College and Kentucky Wesleyan.
The Chargers visited Freed-Hardeman for a scrimmage Friday, Oct. 28. The previous Saturday they competed against three junior colleges in the Corey Black Showcase at Atlanta, winning two and losing to preseason No. 2 ranked Georgia Highland by two points.
“This was a great test for us to see where we stacked up with the elite teams in the country. We learned a lot about ourselves and were able to focus this week in practice on improving our weaknesses to get ready for our opener,” Coach Neal said, following the event which also gave the players exposure to coaches from four-year colleges.
This follows the 5:30 p.m. opener which matches the Columbia State women’s squad against Arkansas State Mid-South of West Memphis. The Lady Chargers split last season with the Lady Tigers, who are coached Sonja Tate, the all-time leading scorer for Arkansas State University located in Jonesboro.
Neal has tabbed A.J. Hicks, one of two returnees from last year, as the team's star player.
"A.J will have a chance to be a JUCO All-American by coming back for his sophomore year. He’s a tremendous scorer and all-around player.
The 6-foot-4 Hicks averaged 17.8 points to lead last year's 22-5 Chargers. He also had 2.6 steals and 3.6 assists per contest.
The other returnee is 6-2 Ricky Lang from John Paul II School in Hendersonville. Lang scored 3.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in a reserve role. Neal noted that Lang has a high basketball IQ and will be counted on for leadership.
There are two new sophomores, 6-3 Kionti Jones from Spring Hill and 6-2 Devontae Leslie of Shelbyville.
Isaiah Crawley, a 6-6 forward from Ripley, leads a freshman class. Neal expects the versatile Crawley to be a major impact.
Another freshman who has the toughness and shooting ability to be a factor is 5-10 K.J. Lesure, a native of Indianapolis, who played point guard for Centennial in Franklin.
Another West Tennnessee product, 6-0 Tavon King from Halls, is a talented freshman guard who will be counted on to come off the bench who will be counted to score by Coach Neal.
The Charger mentor is counting on 6-6 Donovan Brown of Warner Robins, Ga. to be the starting power. Neal described Brown as a skilled big man who can make shots from perimeter. Another athletic power forward from Georgia (Macon) is 6-6 Justin Slocom who will be counted on to provide a rebounding and post threat inside.
Yet another Georgia product, 6-5 Deshaun Wilkenson from Guyton (Effingham County) is a long and athletic wing shooter who will be counted on to be a threat from three this year.
Neal listed three other freshman who appear ready to play including 6-3 Colin Young, a 3-point shooter from Augusta, Ga.; 5-10 combo guard Jerrick Mitchell from Athens, Ga. and 6-6 Isaiah Blacksmith from East Nashville High who Neal considers the team's best rebounder.
"We still have some injuries that are plaguing us but as we get everyone healthy the better we will be," Neal noted. "I’m excited because as we get more game experience the freshmen will build more confidence and mature quickly to get them where they need to be for us to compete at a high level."
Injuries have limited the progress of several players on a squad of 20 including 6-1 Walter Crawford from Mt. Pleasant. Other freshman include 6-0 Jalen Hunter, Goodpasture; 5-11 Leonardo Holmes, East Nashville; 6-10 Ethan Renfroe, Chester County; 6-0 Trey Wilder, Smyrna; 6-6 Antwan Jennings, Pearl-Cohn and 6-4 Christian Smith, Wheaton (Ill.) Academy. At least four players will be redshirted.
Neal said he really loves the depth and the length of this year's team.
"We should be good in the press and be able to play fast. We have more shooters this year which will hopefully lead to more 3’s and higher scoring," Neal explained. "Our defense will be the key to how far we go. We have focused on it early, if we can defend and rebound at a high level then we will have a good year."