G-P expects veteran lineup to lead to success

Nov. 14, 2013 @ 10:32 AM

This could be Gatlinburg-Pittman’s year.

Finally, coach A.J. Bennett has the experienced seniors — six of them — to compete in one of the state’s toughest districts, where a team has reached the state tournament six of the last seven years.

“We’re very excited and we expect a lot out of these guys,” Bennett said. “We’ve got guys that have played a lot of basketball. We expect to try and compete for the district championship. In our district, if you can compete for the district championship you can compete on any level.”

Central to those hopes is the play of seniors Clay Leatherwood and Steffen Schroeder, but Schroeder’s season was nearly derailed before it began when he twisted his ankle in the Sevier County Jamboree on Monday. Luckily it was just a sprain and the guard should be back in a couple weeks. Leatherwood had no trouble picking up the slack in G-P’s season opener, an 86-48 win over South-Doyle on Tuesday. Leatherwood had 18 points in the win, all in the first half.

“I felt pretty good,” Leatherwood said. “I was shooting the ball pretty well, attacking the rim. We played really well as a team. Defensively we stepped up. I feel like we’re a lot better from last year.”

Two other seniors were in double digits in the victory, with Christian Maloney chipping in 19 and Thomas Mackey, who Bennett calls the most improved player in District 3-AA, finishing with 17. Those are the kind of numbers the Highlanders hope to see all season, with Schroeder right in the mix as well. The last two years have been building to this moment.

“I think we’ll do big things,” Schroeder said while standing on crutches Tuesday. “We’ve all played together since freshman year. We all know each other. We’re all a good group of kids. I think we’ll do a lot.”

Schroeder said leadership has been the missing piece for G-P the last couple years, something that’s no longer in short supply. The Highlanders lost nine games last year after being tied or holding the lead in the fourth quarter. Now, G-P has gained the experience, painfully, to be a successful team in February.

“You need those guys that, when the game’s on the line, not only keep calm but believe in one another and say it’s time to buckle down,” Bennett said. “I feel like we’ve finally got those (players).”

That’s not to say everything’s perfect in Gatlinburg. Leatherwood said defense and rebounding remain problem areas, but it’s something the team is working on daily. With this roster, the senior is confident the Highlanders will get there.

“We need to work harder on that as a team in practice,” Leatherwood said. “We’re starting to get a little bit better than we were last year but we’re nowhere where we need to be. We need to work a little bit harder on that.”