Gone from last year’s 22-1 team is the backcourt duo of Jerrod Albright and Eric Henry. Both Albright and Henry were interchangeable at both the point guard and off-guard positions making it impossible for teams to stay home on Vinton County’s deadly perimeter shooters and dominant post presence Dustin Guthrie.
“We are obviously excited about what we return, but I don’t think people realize exactly what we lost,” Combs said. “We graduated two of the best guards in southern Ohio. They could handle it, score it, and create shots for themselves and everybody else as well. They were great leaders and great competitors and it will be difficult to replace them.”
Guthrie, now a senior, returns with his 15-point, 11-rebound averages to lead a Vinton County team that despite the loss of its talented backcourt, still returns five lettermen from the regular season unbeaten squad.
“He is our nucleus,” said Combs of Guthrie. “Each year I feel like Dustin has improved his game. This year he has worked to add a little bit more to his perimeter game. We know people are going to key on him, but I feel like he is now able to score from some different spots on the floor.”
Returning on the frontline with Guthrie is junior Jake Prater. As a third-year starter, Prater is the perfect complement to Guthrie. At 6-4, Prater can defend the other team’s best player – post or perimeter – and is a high-percentage shooter that often prefers to face the basket from 10-15 feet rather than play a more traditional back-to-the-basket post-up game. This leaves the All-Ohioan Guthrie room to operate down low and makes it tough on teams to send extra help for fear of leaving Prater in the high-low game.
Vinton County also returns a pair of wing threats in Andrew Eberts and Ryan Stewart. The senior duo enjoyed several open looks a year ago, and on most nights, they shot a high percentage from beyond the arc that made the Vikings simply unstoppable. With the graduation of Albright and Henry, both Eberts and Stewart will be forced to handle the ball a little more this year in order to get the Vinton County offense started and to allow Guthrie his necessary touches.
Senior Ben Batey also returns for his third varsity season. As possibly the best all-around athlete on the Vinton County roster, Batey can play a variety of positions on the offensive end and can defend all five positions giving Coach Combs the versatility to use a variety of combinations.
The key to the Vikings success this season could be how quickly their sophomores get comfortable at the varsity level. Point-guard Andy Grillo, an athletic Ethan Allen, center Dylan Guthrie, and heady off-guards Steven Thompson and Taylor Reed are all competing for varsity time. This group of sophomores have experienced a great deal of success throughout junior high, freshmen, and junior varsity, and now are all trying to bring something to the table that can help Coach Combs keep his experienced returnees in their comfort zone
“Our young kids all do some different thing well,” said Coach Combs. “I think it is important for us to keep kids in their natural roles as much as possible. Hopefully our sophomores are able to fill some gaps to allow us to do that throughout the season.”
Rounding out the Vinton County roster is senior Michael Dixon and junior Brandon Clark.
The Vikings enter this season atop most the preseason Tri Valley Conference Ohio Division predictions. Vinton County will not only play its normal home-and-away TVC games with Alexander, Belpre, Nelsonville, Wellston, and Meigs, but will also take on a tough out-of-conference schedule that includes the top two Scioto Valley Conference teams in Huntington and Zane Trace as well as the defending SVC champion Southeastern Panthers. The Vikings will also have a difficult road test at Waverly.
“We have a chance to be a good team, but we are not going to be good just because people say we’re going to be,” said Combs who passed the career 100-wins mark last year in only his eighth year of coaching. “We play a tough schedule and our kids have to understand that we have a target. There are a lot of teams that consider us one of their biggest games of the season, and if we are not ready to play then we are going to get beat.”
It is also possible that there will be a change in this year’s Southeast District Division II tournament layout. Vinton County will most likely stay in the east which could put them at close-by Wellston High School for the sectionals. The other change is that D-II will get two to the regional meaning that many of the higher-seeded schools only have to win one sectional game to get to the Convo.
“It’s a little early to start looking at all that,” Coach Combs said of the postseason talk. “We will approach this season like we always have tried to approach them since I have been at Vinton County. We hope to win the league and win the sectional. We take pride in playing our best basketball of the year come tournament time, and hopefully that will be the case this season.”