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Watauga Valley girls: Unaka eyes return trip to state

Jeff Birchfield and Douglas Fritz • Nov 12, 2018 at 6:00 PM

The Unaka girls made it farther than any Northeast Tennessee team in the TSSAA basketball playoffs last season, advancing all the way to the state semifinals. The Lady Rangers appear to be serious contenders to return to the state tournament this year.

Unaka lost significant scoring with the departure of guards Sarah Tipton, Lexi Garland and Sydney Markland but return Myah Parlier and Erika Potter in the posts.

Coaches' picks

1. Unaka

2. Cloudland

3. North Greene

4. Hampton

5. University High

6. Sullivan North

Cydney Forney and Savannah Tipton are in the starting lineup, and Zoie Grindstaff, Jada Whitehead, Madison Pierce and Beth Lowe are expected to elevate their games where there’s little drop-off in the guard play from last season.

“For us to be good, the younger kids are going to have to step up,” coach Kenneth Chambers said. “We’ve seen some guards who saw a lot of playing time last year and we’re returning Savannah Tipton, who really played well this summer. We have a team capable of playing really fast or we can play slow where we have some size. We just have to see who steps into the roles we need.”


After falling just one game shy of making the state tournament last season, the Lady Highlanders look to punch their ticket to Murfreesboro this year.

Cloudland returns a trio of seniors — Trinity Vines, Stacia Wilson and Megan Lunsford — that is complemented by a quartet of sophomores: Mandy Benfield, Gracie Freeman, Ambrien Blair and Lakeon Johnson.

“That’s three as good returners as anybody else has,” Lunsford said of his seniors. “They’re going to play hard and they’re good leaders. We have Mandy Benfield and Gracie Freeman rounding out the starting five.”

The coach said the group is filled with exceptional workers, players who go to the gym on their own to take a lot of shots.


With a couple of full-time starters returning in Stephanie Campbell and Leanne Guinn, coach Bud Hazelwood said there’s hope for a good season.

“I hope we’re going to be in the mix,” Hazelwood said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Campbell was the team’s second- leading scorer last season.

Also back are Haley Carden, Brooke Hughes, Hannah Collins and Trinity Camillo. Hughes and Camillo are among the top shooters on the team.

“They all started a game or two, here or there,” Hazelwood said.

Hughes is the point guard, and Campbell backs her up when she’s not on the wing. In the post, Hazelwood said he’s counting on Guinn, sophomore Hazen Brummitt and Hannah Haley.

“I hope we will be able to go inside a little more this year,” he said.


With five seniors and Science Hill transfer Amari Johnson (6-1, Jr.) — who should make a major impact in the post — on their roster, the Lady Bucs could be the league’s surprise team.

Seniors are Sarah Fisher, Bekah Rice, Callie Newberry, Gracie Crabtree and Courtney Henley, who missed last season with an injury. Johnson adds an inside presence, which along with improved guard play gives University High some versatility.

“We’re excited about this group. They work hard and they work well together,” coach Herman Rice said. “They’re jelling and coming together and playing as one team. It’s just with our league, the teams don’t rebuild, they reload. You have a team in our conference make the state tournament about every year.”


The Lady Golden Raiders face their typical challenges in a tough league.

“I said last year we moved from Class AA to Class A, but we didn’t move down,” coach Chris Salley said. “We just moved. It is a tough league. But I expect we’re always going to play hard. We should get better as the season goes along, especially once we get Maddie back.”

Maddie Winters, a 5-9 sophomore guard/post and the team’s leading scorer, is out until after Christmas with a broken hand.

Among key players are senior guard Makenzie Harrison, freshman point guard Lilly Crawford and junior Sahara Bates.

Also in the mix are guards Katelyn Rutherford, a junior, and sophomores Emily Schwartz and Hannah Mullins.

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