FRONT ROYAL — John Kelly was hardly a new face on the Warren County basketball scene when he was hired to take over the Wildcats’ boys program last season, as the longtime head coach had mentored many of his new players in travel ball and had spent the previous decade as the school’s varsity girls coach. That didn’t eliminate the acclimation process, however.
Kelly’s first season as the varsity boys coach was one of a struggle for wins — the Wildcats finished the season 3-17 — but Warren County opens year No. 2 under Kelly tonight against Millbrook and is far past the get-to-know-you stage that prevailed last winter.
“I think much of the season was doing that,” Kelly said last week of the Wildcats getting comfortable with a new coach and a new system. “We had a lot of the old guard trying to bring the new guard in, it seemed like, too, and we had a clash of two different kinds of systems. It definitely showed. I think we were competitive. I think we lost six or seven games by 5 points or less, so it was there. The players that were playing last year didn’t get a lot of playing time the year before that, so that was their chance to do it. That’s the big difference between last year and this year, we’ve got a lot of kids with a lot of experience. It might be the deepest team we’ve had here in a long, long time talent-wise.”
Warren County returns six players from last season’s varsity squad, including three returning starters in Robert Cameron (10.8 points per game last season), David Kelly and 6-foot-6 forward Ricky Dodson. Jonathan McCarty, a 6-3 guard who led the Wildcats in scoring before getting hurt and missing the second half of the season, is also back, as is Aidan deVenoge, whom John Kelly said would start this year after playing major minutes off the bench a year ago.
An influx of sophomores — including the starting five from a junior varsity squad that Kelly said lost only three games last year — further bolsters the roster, and Kelly envisions young players like Marion Haley, Logan DeHaven and Gabe Davis pushing for playing time in their first varsity seasons.
“It’s kind of a battle between our returning players and our sophomores about who’s gonna be the ones that show up on game night,” said John Kelly, who noted that the competitive atmosphere in practice this preseason is one standout difference from last year.
In a bit of roster oddity, 14 of Warren County’s 15 players are listed as guards — Dodson is the lone outlier — although McCarty (6-foot-3) and Aaron Schroyer (6-4) have some size.
“It’s funny because that’s more of a mentality that we have. We all wanna be guards,” John Kelly said. “We wanna push the ball. We’re gifted with speed this year, on offense and (with) defensive speed, so that’s kind of what we want to do is make it a faster-tempo style of game. I tell them their speed does not define them, their defensive speed is what defines this team and so far they’ve taken it out in practice.”
David Kelly, the team’s primary point guard, agreed that defense should be a strength for the Wildcats this season, adding that “we can score a lot of points and play great defense” against the toughest teams on their schedule.
“We’re trying not to copy what happened last year,” David Kelly said. “Our goal is to get at least over .500 this year and we wanna put up a district championship for our school because we haven’t had one of those in about 20 years or so.
“Another goal is we wanna be our potential,” he added. “We know our potential. We know we can hang with these higher-up schools, with Handley and Millbrook, and we have the talent to give those teams a run for their money.”
Given the roster makeup, it’s essential that Warren County can shoot the ball as well, and Cameron said the Wildcats are gifted with players that can knock down shots from the perimeter.
“We’re a lot better at shooting this year. We have a bunch of shooters, we can spread the court and that’s gonna hurt teams this year because they’re gonna have to come out on us,” Cameron said. “We need to be able to knock down threes. That’s part of our game and if we don’t, it’s gonna be harder for us.”
Cameron, like David Kelly, said the Wildcats are playing with something to prove this winter.
“We can play with anybody,” he said. “People might count us out, but we can play with anybody. Nobody knows how good we are yet and we’re just ready to show them.”
Warren County will test that line of thinking right off the bat with games against a pair of Class 4 foes in Millbrook and Handley this week. The latter has reached the Class 4 state final four in each of the past two seasons and fell in the state championship game last year.
“Our goal is every time we step on the court, we should play with the heart of a district champion, so our goal is to win the district this year,” John Kelly said. “It’s not out of the realm. They’re driven more this year than ever. Like I said, the biggest difference we have this year is we’d go into the locker room last year at halftime and say ‘we’re only down 10, that’s good.’ Now I think it’s more like ‘we’re only up 10, that’s not good enough.’ So that’s kind of what I wanna see (from) them early in the season, how they respond to these big games. We have Millbrook and all those teams early on, so we’ll see what happens.”