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SMITHFIELD — The 2019-20 season for the Neuse Charter girls basketball team will be a learning experience.
Senior Dargan Harris will be the lone returning starter for a program that went 14-10 last season, but she’ll have far and away more experience than most of her teammates, and not just because she’s a starter.
Out of a roster of 10, four players on this year’s roster have never played organized basketball before, including the other two seniors joining Harris, a junior and a freshman. Experience aside, the team will also have a roster composed of almost half freshman, who are moving up to the high school ranks and stepping into big roles in their first seasons.
Despite the youth, head coach Robbie Taylor has a positive outlook for his program.
“The whole team has really bonded as far as a cohesive nature,” Taylor said. “It’s something that has been really positive. I think this season, as inexperienced as we are, will be pretty good for these girls.”
Taylor will be counting on those with more experience, including several freshmen, to carry the weight while others get up to speed. He reported he has a lot of athletes on the team and expects everyone, even the players learning the game, to contribute as the team works toward another winning season.
Coming in third last season in the 1-A Carolina Conference won by Princeton, the Cougars hope to differentiate themselves and move up the league ranks through tough defense.
“Our strength is going to be defense,” Taylor said. “We’re concentrating on that a lot, of course you’ve got to be in shape to play defense, so we’re trying to get in shape.”
Cougar boys to debut new lineup
The Neuse Charter boys basketball team is working through similar trends to its counterpart.
A few days ago, head coach Dustin Squibb sat down and calculated the numbers — his basketball program lost 95% of its offense after last season.
Following a 7-16 campaign in 2018-19, the Cougars graduated six seniors, leaving a staggering number of output the team will have to make up this year. But the team views it more as an opportunity for new faces to carry the program forward than anything else.
“We still have very high expectations,” Squibb said on Thursday at dawn under the fluorescent lighting of the Neuse Charter gym. “The guys have bought in and we practice every day at 5:00 (a.m.). Typically, most of them are here before me when I open the door and they’re getting shots up. So expectations are high and they’re going to remain high despite the age of our team.”
The task of moving forward will chiefly fall on the shoulders of the team’s three seniors — point guard Salah Tucker, Jamir Ledbetter and Jacob Denton — along with sophomore Eli Ayers. Squibb expects the quartet to shepherd along the rest of the group, four other sophomores and eight freshmen.
“Those four will be key for us and how we do this year,” Squibb predicted. “They’re probably our four most-talented players as well.”
Surrounding the four veterans will be four of those freshmen, who Squibb expects to play regular minutes, meaning the bench won’t just be young, but the usual lineup will be too.
The program has been preparing to move past its youth, though. Without a football program taking away time and attention, the Cougars have been practicing off and on since March to shrug off some of its inexperience and bring the freshmen into the fold.
The team hopes to lead not through its offense, but by defense, forcing turnovers that can lead to easy baskets, Squibb said.
“Our trademark is going to have to be our defense,” Squibb said. “We’re going to have to get after it defensively.”
Neuse Charter’s first test, and first chance to learn quickly, will come sooner than the rest of the Johnstonian News readership area. The Cougar programs begin their season at home on Friday night against East Wake Academy; the girls play at 6:00 and the boys will follow at 7:30 p.m.