Panthers blessed with height, length
A large team will take the court this winter for Franklin boys basketball coach Doug Plemmons.
The Panthers are large in terms of the number of players, but also in height.
Of the 15 players on the roster, six are 6-foot-4 or taller.
Another four are listed at 6-1, 6-2 or 6-3.
Being so tall and long could make it difficult for opposing offenses.
“Our defense may translate into points because of our length,” Plemmons said.
Chris Hartbarger is the tallest player. He’s listed at 6-7.
Bryce Rogers is next at 6-6. Miles McClure and Brayden Sroka are 6-5, followed by Trey Penland and Griffin Green at 6-4.
The roster breakdown features four seniors, seven juniors and four sophomores. A year after Plemmons kept 14 players, for what he recalled being his largest team ever, the Panthers have an even bigger roster.
The junior varsity team has 16 players. The loaded rosters are partially a result of a couple factors, Plemmons said.
One is them is recent success for the program. Since Plemmons returned to coaching two years ago, the Panthers have gone 16-8 and 18-8. They finished third in the conference two years ago and second last year.
Another reason interest is very high, Plemmons said, is basketball is a sport with multiple avenues for players coming up. They can play for the school, travel team or community league.
Of the 15 players, only four are returning from last year:
• McClure, a sophomore who earned all-conference honors
• Isaiah Johns, a junior point guard
• Trey Woodard, a senior guard
• Brayden Sroka, a senior forward
The Panthers lost eight seniors to graduation and one player to transfer. Their five leading scorers from last year are gone, and so are the 50.1 points per game they averaged.
But the Panthers got two transfers in Hartbarger, a senior from Cherokee, and Green, a sophomore from Highlands.
Senior Bennett Swafford has returned to the program after a year off.
Juniors Eli Gilbert, Seth Crupi, Wyatt Gibson, Dexter Jennings, Rogers and Chad Wilson are up from the JV squad that went 18-5 last year.
Sophomores Penland and Kellen Stiles are also up from the JV.
The players get along great off the court, but Plemmons expects his biggest challenge will be getting them to develop together on the court. He hopes they can share the ball, cover for each other on defense, pick each other up after making mistakes, and truly be happy for each other even if they personally didn’t have a good game.
“If our team wins and somebody else carries us that night, we need to be OK with that, happy with that. But with youth, sometimes that’s a hard lesson to learn. They want instant – want it all right now,” Plemmons said.
“But I will say they’ve been willing to work hard. They don’t think they’re there yet. They still know they’ve got a ways to go to even come close to tapping into the talent that they do have.”
McClure averaged 6.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a freshman. He raised the level of his game against Mountain Six Conference competition, averaging 8.6 points.
He’s worked hard in the weight room in the offseason, Plemmons said, and has added a power element to his game.
“He’s not afraid at all to go in there and bang and impose himself on the other team just by shear strength,” Plemmons said.
Johns will start at point guard. Jay Bueck held down that spot in recent season, and led the team in scoring at 16 points per game and was named the co-player of the year in the conference.
Johns admits he has big shoes to fill, but he’s going to play his game and not try to live up to his predecessor.
“I’m not trying to do what Jay did; just do my role,” Johns said. “Just distributing, knowing when to get the ball to people, and controlling the rhythm of the game.”
Plemmons said Johns is solid with the ball, makes good decisions and is a great defender.
In addition to McClure and Johns, Wilson, Penland and Green are expected to start.
Green has tremendous jumping ability. He threw down a two-handed dunk with ease during Thursday’s scrimmage against Walhalla.
“Probably one of the better jumpers I’ve ever coached,” Plemmons said, “as far as being able to get off the floor. You see that in his game. He makes some plays you don’t think he can make. Somebody might beat him off dribble, but he’ll take it off the backboard. If he gets loose, he’ll dunk it easy.
“He’s got a chance to be an instant impact player on our team and in our conference.”
Penland and Wilson were the leading scorers last year for Franklin’s JV team.
Wilson has always been known as a streaky scorer, Plemmons said, but he’s developed his game, has gotten stronger and can dunk despite being 5-11 or 6-0.
“Chad Wilson is probably the most improved player in our program,” Plemmons said.
When you factor in size, strength, speed and jumping ability, Plemmons said Penland might be the best athlete at FHS.
“He’s a really good offensive rebounder; gets a lot of putbacks,” Plemmons said. “Runs the floor well. He’s worked hard on his outside shooting. Last year on JV he was primarily a slasher, and it was all about getting to the rim. Now he can mix in other stuff, and he’s a good free-throw shooter too.”
Plemmons expects he’ll be able to go deeper into his bench this season. Having the added depth is reassuring.
“It’s a nice makeup for our team,” he said. “We’re excited about every one of them. Interested to see how it all blends together. I think it’s gonna be a fun year, I really do.”
Primary goal: win a conference title
A year after finishing second in the Mountain Six Conference, the goal is break the championship drought.
“I think we’ve got a serious chance to make a run at a conference championship,” junior Isaiah Johns said. “That’s really my goal for this year since we haven’t won it in a long time.”
The Panthers last won a conference title in 2001, meaning no players on the roster were even born yet.
“As senior, I want to win conference since it’s my last year and not having been on a conference winning team yet,” Trey Woodard said. “That’d be pretty cool. Also, go farther in the playoffs than last year. Jay (Bueck) getting hurt didn’t help us, but it would be cool to go one step farther.”
FHS went 18-8 last year overall, 7-3 in the MSC. Hendersonville won the title for the second straight year.
The Panthers advanced to the second round of the 2-A NCHSAA playoffs, but lost on the road to Forest Hills. Leading scorer Jay Bueck missed that game after tearing his ACL in the home playoff win over Madison.
Only four of Franklin’s current 15 players participated in that playoff game.
The Panthers have four seniors, seven juniors and four sophomores.
Having so many players who lack varsity experience means there will undoubtedly be some growing pains.
However, coach Doug Plemmons doesn’t want anyone to use youth or inexperience as an excuse and think they’ll have time to be really good in the future.
“I don’t want them to wait,” he said. “I think there’s enough talent here. If they come together this year, it could be the start of a little run for Franklin High School. I don’t want them to not reach what they can do this year.”
Brayden Sroka is one of the seniors and returning players. He said the Panthers are learning how to play together and thinks they can improve upon last year.
“As long as we go out there every night and play, leave it all out there, we can pull it off,” Sroka said.
Losing a huge senior class is why Franklin has many newcomers. Seven of the top eight scorers from last year either graduated or transferred. Sophomore Miles McClure averaged 6.8 points per game last year, which was sixth best on the team.
“We do have Miles,” Johns said. “He’s a beast.”
The Panthers aren’t too concerned about losing so much of their scoring.
“I think all of us will really pick our game up a lot,” Johns said. “I think we’ll share it more than last year.”
McClure said the Panthers possess good balance. They’re able to get out and run in transition, but also can slow it down in the half court and utilize their superior size.
“We have some good guards,” he said, “but we’re huge this year. We’ve got a lot of guys over 6-4. So most of the time in the half court we’re trying to play through the big men to our advantage.”
Because of having six guys 6-foot-4 or taller, McClure himself included, he’s confident the Panthers can match up with any team on the schedule.
“Last year we had teams like Rabun Gap and Mountain Heritage we knew physically we couldn’t match up with,” McClure said. “This year we won’t have that problem, so it’s all about mental stuff.”
Woodard said the Panthers have more depth than last year, which will make things difficult for opponents.
“We have balance through our entire lineup,” he said. “Some players, like Miles and Griffin, will get their numbers. But it’s not gonna be a really big drop off from the starters to the bench players in terms of energy and talent.”
Franklin opens the season Saturday, Nov. 30 at Highlands. A victory would give Plemmons his 300th career victory at Franklin.
Plemmons became the school’s all-time wins leader last year, surpassing Tom Raby atop the list.
This will be Plemmons’ 29th season coaching. His career wins total sits at 498, meaning he could reach 500 Dec. 5 at Cherokee.
Franklin’s first home game is slated for Dec. 9 against Hayesville.