A midseason holiday break came at a most opportune time for a Polk County boys basketball squad suffering through injuries, sickness and a three-game losing streak.
Now head coach Josh McEntire is more than ready to see just how beneficial that layoff has been.
“We got a little break to get hungry for basketball again,” McEntire said. “It’s almost like a renewal of the season. We’re hoping the results of that will be better.”
When the Wolverines step onto the court Wednesday night at home against Avery, it will end a 20-day break since their last action, a Dec. 19 home loss to Mountain Heritage. It will also mark the start of a key run of Western Highlands Conference games, four of those in a 10-day span, in which Polk County (4-5, 0-2) will have a chance to put itself back into the league playoff picture. There are plenty of reasons to think that’s possible.
Of the Wolverines’ five losses this season, four were by single-digit margins, and in each Polk County had a legitimate shot at winning. That has given McEntire cause for high expectations for the rest of league play.
“I told them (last week) that of the teams left on our schedule, no one is more talented than us,” McEntire said. “We’ll be as talented as everyone. I still think the conference is up in the air. Avery is very talented. They’ve got some very good big kids. But I don’t there’s anyone who is head and shoulders above everyone else and I don’t think there’s anyone who is head and shoulders below everyone else. I think the team who wins the conference will be around 9-3 or something like that.
“We were banged up and had some sick, but there’s a difference in losing because of things you can’t control than losing doing things we can control and can get better at.”
Free throw shooting and protecting leads have been the two key things that McEntire pointed two as areas where the Wolverines could control and improve. In losses to Landrum and Madison, the Wolverines saw large second-half leads slip away, and Polk’s overtime loss to North Henderson included a 13-for-31 effort at the free throw line.
“We’ve got to play with effort all the time and defensive intensity all the time,” McEntire said. “The guys know it. They just have to learn to do it. Our free throw shooting is just one of the little things keeping us from being 8-1.”
Polk County has gotten, as expected, solid backcourt play, with sophomore Jamal Tanner unofficially averaging 16 points per game and senior Jaron Bontrager averaging 12. But a number of other offensive threats have emerged, much to McEntire’s delight.
“Wes Mullis is so much better offensively than last season,” McEntire said. “Wes Brady and Jordan Smith have improved so much offensively as well. Saquan (Miller) has shown a lot of leadership. He is a quiet leader. He’s always encouraging people. Anthony Carson is the same way. You don’t always see it, but he is one of those quiet leaders. Those two are also playing really well right now.”
Owen’s 59-53 win over Mountain Heritage on Saturday leaves Avery and Madison as the only undefeated teams in WHC play. A win Wednesday over Avery, currently ranked 8th among 1A schools in the latest MaxPreps computer rankings, would vault the Wolverines back into the thick of the WHC race.
“There are a lot of bright things ahead,” McEntire said. “We’ve got a lot of optimism.”