By Rodney Young
The Pulaski County Cougar basketball team is looking to be more competitive this season. That competition will be among the team members as well as against their opponents.
“We have more competition within the team,” said Head Coach Mark Hanks. “We will be doing some subtle changes on offense and defense. We’re going to try to have more motion, more set plays, and better shot selections. Defensively we probably won’t press as much as before and a few man to man changes as well.”
Coming off their fourth straight losing season, the last two under Coach Hanks, the Cougars will once again play a very tough schedule. The out of district will have the Cougars playing Floyd, defending state champs Radford, a much improved Galax, and George Wythe all twice. George Wythe is now under the direction of former Cougar head coach Pat Burns.
“Floyd is well coached by Brian Harman,” said Coach Hanks. “He does a fine job. Most of their top players are back. The Tanner kid can flat out shoot it. Preston Neukirch, Sam Conley, Justin Conduff and Cole Harris all return for the Buffaloes as well.”
“George Wythe is young but will be well coached,” said Hanks. “Coach Burns will do a great job for them. He won there before and won here at Pulaski County.”
The Maroons return Grant Anders and Darius Moore among others.
“Galax’s Coach Verl Brown has been there for a long time and does a fine job,” Coach Hanks remarked. “Most of their players are returning, also.” Among their players to watch are Steven Peoples, Keyshawn Brown and Jacob Kohl.
The Cougars also will play the defending champs, the Radford Bobcats.
“Coach Cormany does a great job and has a great program,” said Hanks. “They only lost one starter off last year’s team. They will be right in the hunt for another title.” Radford players to watch will be Marcus Finley, Nate Jones, Isaiah Phillips and DeAndre Cook.
The River Ridge District has two new members in Carroll County and Patrick Henry. Patrick Henry last year inflicted the worse loss of the year on the Cougars and Carroll County beat the Cougars both times they played last year.
“Patrick Henry lost a couple big kids but they just reload and will be athletic as usual,” said Hanks. “Carroll coach Brad Hawkes has done a fine job there.” The Cavaliers have Gunnar Beamer, Connor Lundy, Duncan Reece and Cody Keith all returning from a squad that went deep into the playoffs last season.
“Salem will have four of their starters back from the state championship team,” Coach Hanks remarked. “Mann (Troy) is real good. Alex Light is big and strong inside for them. They will be tough.”
“Cave Spring is well coached by Billy Hicks and his two sons are good players. They will be tall and pretty good squad. Hidden Valley is also well coached by Troy Wells. They lost Hodson from last years squad, but most of their starters return. Blacksburg lost one of their best players in Kaleb Bohrnstedt when he transferred. They were the tallest team in district last season. Christiansburg lost their best athlete and best player in Augustine, but they still have a lot of returnees. ”
Coach Hanks see’s the district as a tough one, with Patrick Henry standing out as the best. Salem, Carroll County, and Cave Spring are at the next level, with Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Hidden Valley all fighting it out.
When asked about his Cougars Coach Hanks simply replied, “it all gets back to us being more competitive.”
Pulaski County lost 13 games last year by double digits, and lost all ten games in the district, eleven if you count the tournament game. They lost eleven straight at one point during the season.
This is Mark Hanks’ third year back as the head coach after a two year hiatus. He won two state titles while coaching at Liberty High School. It’s his tenth overall year as the Cougar head coach. He had six winning seasons in his first seven here, but his last two haven’t been pretty. It’s something you don’t have to remind him about, and it’s been tough on him as he’s used to winning.
His coaching staff will be J.R. Montgomery, and a very familiar name and face in Jared King.
Montgomery is in his fifth season as the junior varsity head coach. He’s a former Cougar player and played for Coach Hanks.
The new assistant, King, is also a former Cougar and played for Hanks. He was also a baseball player for the Cougars and a graduate and former baseball player for the University of Virginia. King also the new baseball coach for the Cougars.
“It’s very good to have former players coaching,” said Hanks. “They both know our system and what it takes to win. Both are good influences on our players. Both relate to them. Both are big assets for the basketball program.”
This years team will have three seniors, seven juniors, and three sophomores. The seniors are Marcus Johnston, Lonnie Mattox and Tyler Ervine.
“Marcus brings us good size and experience,” said Hanks. “He is a good rebounder and consistent scorer for us. Lonnie creates his own shot. He’s a second team All-District returnee. He’s very athletic, I demand a lot from him. Tyler has a good stroke. He needs to do the little things for us.”
Hanks then went down the list of juniors on the team, and that list wasn’t too shabby.
“Cam Merchant is a very skilled player, he needs to step up this year,” said Hanks. “He needs to score more for us to be good. Marcus Burks is quick, a good shooter, and a good three point shooter. He’s a gym rat and has a great motor. Tyler Blevins is very heady. He competes hard. We need that. He makes winning plays for us. He’s recovering from a broken foot, hopefully he’ll be back around Christmas for us.”
“Malik Eaves is a good athlete and is quick,” continued Hanks. “He’s improved offensively and is a good perimeter defender. Eric Weeks is the tallest player we have. He’s come a long way, but he still needs to be stronger and put on more weight. We need him to rebound better, but he has a good stroke. Jake Callahan is a physical kid who plays hard. Brandon Walters is back from a terrible atv accident. He plays hard and is still getting his body back into shape. He’s what I call a glue guy. You need those on your team.”
Coach was pleased when he talked about his three sophomores.
“Isaac Poe is bigger and stronger this year,” said Hanks. “He’s a good shooter and has a great attitude. I threw him into action last year as a freshman and that was tough on him. Miguel Garcia is greatly improved and has a good feel for the game. He handles ball real well and can play multiple positions. Hesus Hickman is the best rebounder in the program. He has a knack for getting to the ball and he will see action.”
“We played in some tough camps this off season,” said Hanks. “I like the kids we have right now. Most of these kids will see action. We may go 8, 9, or 10 deep. We play a very tough schedule. I like playing local teams that are good. Hopefully people will come out and watch and we will be more competitive than last year and the year before that.”
Pulaski County will not only face a tough district schedule, but their out of district schedule is demanding as well. If hard work and good coaching pays off, then here’s hoping the Cougars will be more competitive, indeed. If not then it may be another long season in the Cougar Den.