For every coach, the end of one season means it’s time to prepare for the next one and the inevitable changes that go with it.
For Arab basketball coach Justin Jonus, it’s not just moving on from a team with 10 seniors, it’s moving to a new classification, a new area and a new site for the regional tournament. Next year, the competition likely will be fairly strong in the Knights’ new 6A, Area 15 home with the likes of Buckhorn, Fort Payne and Scottsboro.
If the Knights make it to the regionals, they would be traveling to Wallace State instead of Jacksonville, but it won’t be easy to get there. Arab will cross with Athens, Columbia, Hazel Green and Madison Academy from Area 16 in the subregion.
Also of note, Jonus is planning a return for the Knights to play in the Holly Pond Thanksgiving Tournament next season.
Jonus said starting with basically a new team in a tough classification will certainly be a challenge.
“We’re going to have to adapt and we’re going to have to change,” he said.
The Knights faced good competition this year, but the expectation is to see a lot more of it.
“Fort Payne and Scottsboro are familiar, so I was happy with that,” said Jonus. “But recently, Madison Academy got bumped up to 6A for the state’s ‘competitive balance,’ so that bumped Buckhorn over to our area.”
The Knights split with the Bucs last year.
“That shows you we can compete with them, but the overall amount of talent we have to play against goes up for sure. There won’t be any easy nights,” he said.
Jonus said hard work and discipline will be very important, but he feels his team will be up for the change.
“I accept challenges like that and I know the kids will, too,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve been successful long enough now that we’ll go into any gym with confidence.
“Guntersville and Scottsboro were both really good last year so in some ways we’re about in the same spot.”
However, getting through the subregion undoubtedly will be tougher.
“It wasn’t the worst-case scenario but we’ll be crossing with four teams that will be good, but those are still all winnable games for us, especially with the talent we have coming up,” Jonus said.
As far as going to Wallace State for the Northwest Regional tournament, the good news is Hanceville is closer than Jacksonville.
“The boys have never been there and we’re all about trying to make history. It would be quite an experience but this is something the state does and it’s all about us adapting,” said Jonus.
James Ed Johnson, who will be a junior next season, is the one player with significant varsity experience who will return from a talented senior-laden team that featured the likes of Colby King, Brooks Malone, Blake Kelley, Kent Tyler, Logan Parker, Trevor Miller, Caleb Isbell, Preston Williams, Wilson Walker and Sam Chance.
It was a team that often had to adapt to change due to injury or sickness, including the likes of Darian Lusk. A senior next year, Lusk saw a promising junior season cut short by meniscus knee surgery.
So, basically starting over with a young team will present a challenge all it’s own. The good news is it will be young team that likes to win.
The junior varsity won an amazing 27 games in a row to finish at 27-1 on the year while the freshmen team won 17 in a row and ended the season at 21-4.
Add Johnson and Lusk to that picture and things start looking up a bit.
“You can look at it two ways,” Jonus said. “You can look at it that we’re having to rebuild or you can look at it that we will be brand new and guess what, it could be better.
“It’s kind of like getting a new car and we’re getting a new car with new blood and new players.”
The move to 6A is not going to be easy, but Jonus is excited about what he’ll have to work with.
“The young guys coming up are part of the tradition here and they should be competitive and expecting to make the varsity. There’s a lot of holes we’ve got to fill and a lot of underclassmen will have an opportunity to be on this team,” he said.
The inside game will definitely need help.
“We’ll have to change the way we play to an extent because of the personnel we’ll have,” Jonus said. “The only true posts we have coming up are James Reynoso and Spencer Strickland and they’re really more swing guys, so we’ll have some growing pains.”
Jonus said the 6A game could move faster and the Knights will need to put up more points.
“The way we play will be a little more stressful for the coach but a little more fun for the kids and the fans,” he said. “But, I think the kids we have will fit that.
“They shoot the ball pretty well, they’re pretty athletic and they definitely play well together.”
Some of those players were in new territory themselves this year as compared to their junior high days. Will Cavender, a freshman this season, played on the junior varsity team and also got in minutes on the varsity team at season’s end.
“People are going to have doubts, but I’m excited about it,” said Jonus. ”I think it’s going to be good. If we made four regionals in a row with one of those in 6A, that would be huge.”
“We’re going to miss these seniors tremendously,” said Jonus.
You could say it was the team that almost was. The Knights ended the year at 19-11 after falling to Center Point in the first round of the Northeast Regional at Jacksonville State.
It was a disappointing loss, but as it turned out, the Eagles went on to play for a state championship before falling to Fairfield 50-42. The Eagles’ noticeable advantage was their quickness, but the Knights were in the game much of the way.
“Seeing them get to the finals makes you wonder,” Jonus said. “If we’re healthy, that game may have been different. We had a lot of guys with things going on and if we had Logan, Blake and Darian all back at full speed, who knows.
“We were always right there so many times in the game having a chance, we just needed a few more shots to fall and it changes everything. To know you were that close to a team that beat Springville really bad and won their first game in the Final Four, it shows us where we are.
“It did make us feel a little better (to see Center Point advance). That’s two of three years that we went to Jacksonville that the first team we played went on to win the championship or make it to the finals.
“We’ve hit some tough teams, but it’s better than getting beat by a team that loses the next round. These guys (seniors) were pretty special.”