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SHEPHERDSVILLE - Three years in the making, the 2011-2012 Bullitt Central Cougars are chomping at the bit to show what they can do this winter.
With six players on the roster with a lot of varsity starting experience, coach Joe Pat Lee’s team will be on the of the most experienced groups around. Coming off a 15-12 season, the Cougars can post the first back-to-back winning seasons for the program in more than a decade.
“I’m extremely excited for this season to being,” Lee said before a practice last week. “This is a special group of individuals. They have played a ton of games over the last few years.
“The guys had a tremendous summer,” the veteran coach added. “Everybody is ready to go.”
This is a powerful returning group that last year came within a point at home of beating eventual state semi-finalist Bullitt East.
Bullitt Central had just one senior a year ago, Miciah Ocasio. This year’s team returns at least 95 percent of the stats in just about every category.
There was a time three years ago that Lee was forced to put sophomores and freshmen on the court, out of necessity, not choice. That is no longer the case as the total program has made big strides over the past few years.
“Our younger kids coming up are good, but we don’t have to use them,” Lee pointed out. “We finally have the kids and the program where we don’t have to play them. We don’t have to rely on sophomores and juniors.”
Bullitt Central will pretty much go to war this winter with nine seniors leading the way. The varsity roster at this point only has 12 players, although, Lee says that he might expand that a little based on how some younger kids develop.
Lee isn’t going to try and fool anyone. He is the first to admit that his core group of players will be doing most of the work.
“On a given night we’ll be seven or eight guys deep,” the coach explained. “We have six guys who will play a majority of the minutes. They have been there and played a lot of games.”
Leading the way for the maroon and gray will be senior guard Caleb Craddock, one of the few players in the area who scored varsity points as an eighth-grader. This will be his fourth season as the starter running the show.
“Everything starts with Caleb,” Lee said. “He is our best all-around player. He gets guys shots and he gets the ball and takes shots and gets rebounds.
“His skills have always been good,” the coach added. “Now his maturity is better. Mentally, he is better. His practices are better. He is doing what needs to be done.”
Once again, the Cougars won’t be very big. It will be pretty much a four-guard attack based on strong outside shooting.
The leading returning scorer for the Cougars is senior Ryan Schnellenberger. At 6-2, the senior is an outside scoring threat, but he will be asked to move inside at times to rebound and will have to guard taller players on the other teams.
The other two starting guards will be seniors Damon Shepherd and John Sullivan.
“With Damon and Ryan, we feel we have two of the better shooters in the region,” Lee noted. “Ryan shot 42 percent from the outside last year. He is a grea three-point shooter. He can rise up and shoot it anytime.”
Both Sullivan and Shepherd have missed some games in the past with injuries, but they are healthy now and ready to go.
“Damon really worked hard in the off-season,” Lee noted. “He is playing better than ever. John is our best leader. He plays an important role on the team.”
With 6-9 Derek Willis down the road at Bullitt East and new district rival Moore having several 6-6 players, the Cougars will be challenged around the basket. The tallest of the Cougars is 6-4 senior Luke Whitmore along with 6-3 Corey Smith.
“Neither one of them is very big, but they have to defend the big guys,” Lee pointed out. “They will have to have a big season playing defense and rebounding and then doing some things on defense.
When Lee does go past those six players, he will be looking at 6-2 senior Johnny Larison and 6-3 junior Jake Gillard to help up front. Senior Randy Hurst and junior Aaron Duckett will provide the depth at guard.
Bullitt Central has four games scheduled against three teams ranked among the top seven teams in the state. The Cougars have seventh-ranked Moore in their district and there are four teams in the Sixth Region ranked among the top 15 teams in the state. Lee just found out last week that his team will play 13th-ranked Muhlenburg County in the first round of the team’s post-Christmas tournament trip to Logan County.
That news doesn’t stop Lee’s optimism for this season.
“We’re excited,” the coach said. “We have a tough schedule, but we thoroughly expect to win a district championship.
“I stress to the guys that there are huge opportunities for us this season,” Lee added. “We have played with the top teams in the past and we can do it again.”
Bullitt Central will open its season next Tuesday at home against North Oldham, the second-ranked team in the Eighth Region. That team is led by 6-7 senior Devan Rowan, one of the top-20 players in the state this season.
The Cougars will then travel to Mount Washington on Friday, Dec. 2 to take on Bullitt East.