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SHEPHERDSVILLE - On a team in which none of the players had ever competed on a high school basketball team with a winning varsity record, Bullitt Central’s 15-12 season was a huge accomplishment.
Given the fact that the team only had one senior and at times started five juniors, and it is definitely a situation in which the Cougars have laid the foundation for a highly competitive team next season.
“All-in-all, it was a great season,” Bullitt Central head coach Joe Pat Lee said recently. “We were 15-12. Obviously, there were games we thought we should have won, but didn’t close those games out.
“I really felt these kids grew up a lot this year,” the veteran coach added. “They took the first steps learning to win and being winners on a daily basis.”
That is not to say that the team reached all its goals. From the start Lee had pushed the regular season games within the 24th District as being important. Since Bullitt Central was going to host the district tournament, a good position could have set up a big late finish.
That started out well as the Cougars rallied late in a December game to beat Southern 46-43. When they beat North Bullitt in January, it assured them of not having to play in the early game of district week and then having to face Bullitt East early in the week.
Still, the Cougars came up short in a 71-53 regular season loss to Fairdale at home. By then it was obvious that the two teams would meet again in the semi-finals of the district tournament.
The highlight of the season for the maroon and gray was also a lowlight. On Feb. 4, the Cougars hosted Bullitt East. Bullitt Central put together a nearly flawless performance only to have the Chargers score the final nine points of the game to pull out a 52-51 victory.
When Bullitt Central lined up against Fairdale in the post-season, they just could not narrow that earlier gap enough. The Bulldogs eventually won 61-48 despite Bullitt Central scoring 30 of those points from beyond the arch.
“We wanted to play in the regional tournament this season really badly,” Lee said. “All the other things just set a good foundation for the future.
“We were able to play and compete with some of the best teams around,” the coach noted. “We just came up short in some of the games. We did have a lot of experience, but we were still young.”
The only senior on this year’s team was 6-foot senior Miciah Ocasio. He was forced to play inside much of the time and he handled the leadership role well.
“He did a great job understanding his role,” Lee said of his only senior. “He was a vocal leader. He did a great job with that. He was huge in big games.”
The coach said that he feels that Ocasio will go on to be a fine college student, but that he probably won’t play at the next level.
“He loves to play basketball, but he knows his limitations,” Lee said.
With six of the top seven players returning for next season, the Cougars are set for their best season in a number of years.
Junior Ryan Schnellenberger led the team in scoring this season at 17 points a contest and was the leading rebounder at 6.5 a game. Point guard Caleb Craddock was good for 16 points a game and five assists.
The only one of the top six juniors who played on the junior-varsity was Luke Whitmore, but he only played in a few JV contests. That younger team finished with a .500 mark which was about the same as the freshman team.
The top player from those teams that could help the varsity next season is sophomore guard Aaron Duckett who was the leading scorer on the junior-varsity. Lee likes to point out that for the first time in a long time he didn’t have to force feed some of his younger players into varsity games.
Lee will be attending the Kentucky State Tournament this week, but when he returns, the squad will start preparing for next season. Only one of the juniors, Damon Shepherd, plays another sport (baseball).
In June, Lee said that he would conduct his normal youth camp the week of June 6 while the team will attend camp at Georgetown University as well as playing in a summer league at Ballard.
“It will be brutal this summer,” Lee said of the level of competition he will line up to face his team. “I know our kids want that. That is the best thing about this group is that they want to be challenged. They have to do that to get better.”
Obviously, all three Bullitt County programs are being reshuffled in terms of district and regional play starting next season. Lee has already added new district rival Moore to the schedule. At this point, the coach is not sure just how the seeding will work for next season. The Cougars already had games with the other district foes - North Bullitt, Southern and Evangel.
Lee did say that there will be two Bullitt Central-Bullitt East games next season even though the teams will not be in the same district.
“I couldn’t have been any happier with these guys,” Lee concluded. “We improved seven wins over last year. We’re looking to improve seven more next season.
“We want to be around the 20-win mark,” the coach added. “We’ve taken the first steps to do that.”