STAUNTON — Fourth-year Robert E. Lee boys’ basketball coach Jarrett Hatcher is hopeful the most experienced group during his short tenure brings the Leemen a bountiful season.
Lee has hovered at or just above .500 the last two years, and that’s a far cry for a program that has had a rich tradition at winning lots and lots of games and playing a state-level caliber of basketball.
At one point last year, the Leemen were mired with a 6-11 record and the first sub-.500 season since the 1950s appeared inevitable. But Lee turned the season around to finish 14-13, which included winning the Conference 36 championship and advancing to the second round of the Group 2A East tournament.
But 14-13 is not the Lee way, and Hatcher knows it.
“The last two years we have not played the way we wanted because of personnel and injuries,” he said. “I want to play uptempo. Zones and playing slow go against my coaching philosophy.”
But a switch to zone defense and a deliberate offense that almost looked like the Four Corners is what rescued Lee’s spiraling season a year ago when the Leemen won eight of their final 10 games.
“We certainly are entering this season hoping for a far better record than just being a .500 team,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher is firmly convinced the 2014-15 Leemen has the collective ability to play his style.
“I think we can get out and run,” he said. “We have increased our conditioning. All five guys we will have on the floor share the ball, and there is no set person to score.”
But the big key for Lee’s success will have to come on the defensive end. Lee teams of yesteryear devastated opponents with stifling pressure that resulted in soul-crushing runs. That element has been missing the last few years, and the looming question is can this group get it back.
“We struggled last year early on, but we got better,” Hatcher said. “We have devoted more time to our man defense and are working hard instilling our defensive philosophy.”
That’s where Hatcher hopes the experience kicks in with eight returners, including four who started the majority of last season. The other four had starts at some point.
“I like our chemistry,” Hatcher said. “The majority of the guys have played together for a year or two.”
Lee’s four main returning starters include seniors Corree Darcus and Zalik Porter, junior Gunner Cook and sophomore Darius George.
The 6-foot-2 Darcus runs the offense. His play helped fuel Lee’s late-season push when he averaged 12.4 points over the final 10 games.
Porter begins his third varsity season having started every game a year ago as an undersized 6-2 post.
Cook and George are likely to bring a lot of the scoring punch. Cook, who has grown to 6-4, is a 3-point bomber who averaged 9.23 points, second-best last season. George, also 6-4, averaged 7.3 and started to blossom as he grew into the varsity game. Both guys have the ability to play all five positions.
The rest of the returners include senior Caden Crawford, juniors Tavian Brown and Casey Taylor, and sophomore Tyrese Haliburton.
Despite being 5-9, Crawford is perhaps the team’s most athletic and is being counted on to be the defensive stopped. The 5-10 Brown started four games and saw a lot of time as the backup point guard.
Taylor, at 6-2, is the team’s best inside defender and led the team in charges taken. Hatcher needs him to rebound and defend the paint. Haliburton saw limited action as a freshman, but gained valuable experience competing on the varsity level. He’s developing into a strong defender.
Five new players grace the roster. Sophomores L.J. Johnson and Hurliq Williams, and freshman Jarvis Vaughan moved up from the jayvees. Senior Qu’uraan Harden transferred from Stuarts Draft, while Emmanuel Johnson is new to the program.
The 6-1 Johnson is a good rebounder, while the 5-9 Williams will be a backup as he transitions to varsity. The 6-6 Vaughan is the tallest player on the squad, but he’s sidelined with a knee injury and there is no timetable for his return.
Harden, at 5-10, comes from the scoring-happy system at Draft and is adjusting to Lee’s style where he will be a 1 or 2 guard. Like Harden, the 6-3 Emmanuel Johnson is on the ground floor learning the program, but has shown Hatcher a lot of potential.
It won’t take long for Hatcher to find out about this team as the Leemen have a brutal December schedule that features Altavista (two-time defending Group 1A state champion), Bruton (Group 2A final four) and Spotswood (Group 3A runner-up).
“It a brutal schedule, but I like it,” Hatcher said. “We are going to get tested. These games get us ready for Conference 36. I hope we have a better regular season, but ultimately it comes down to the conference tournament.”
Robert E. Lee Schedule
• Dec. 5 at East Rockingham
• Dec. 6 vs. Page County at East Rockingham H.S.
• Dec. 9 at Rockbridge County
• Dec. 19 Broadway
• Dec. 20 vs. Bruton at Spotswood H.S.
• Dec. 26 at Altavista
• Dec. 27 vs. Brookville at Altavista H.S.
• Jan. 2 at Spotswood
• Jan. 3 Frankston Blues Australia
• Jan. 6 at Turner Ashby
• Jan. 9 Fort Defiance
• Jan. 10 vs. Amherst at Rockbridge County H.S.
• Jan. 13 at Waynesboro
• Jan. 20 Harrisonburg
• Jan. 23 at Broadway
• Jan. 27 Spotswood
• Jan. 30 Turner Ashby
• Feb. 3 at Fort Defiance
• Feb. 6 Waynesboro
• Feb. 10 Rockbridge County