Considering the youth and experience level of his team last year, LaFayette head coach Hank Peppers said he was pleased, overall, with how the season played out.
While a 12-13 record may not seem like much to write home about, the Ramblers hovered right around .500 while competing in an always-tough region with no returning starters from the year before and three - and as sometimes as many as four - freshmen starters.
"Last year was definitely a transitional year," said the fourth-year head coach. "We won 12 games and only one of the losses was by more than 14 points. We were very competitive, considering we were starting three or four freshmen.
"Our leading scorer was a freshman and our point guard, which is almost unheard of. No other team in our region was starting any freshmen and we were also the only team in the region last year that began the season with no returning starters."
"Still, I was pleased with the results. Our chemistry really improved and we came close to upsetting Heritage in the region tournament. But (because of weather-related issues) we had to play two games in the same day. We just ran out of gas in the second half of the second game, but we were right there."
Now comes the scary part for the rest of Region 6-4A. The Ramblers are a year older, a year wiser, a year more mature and - as Peppers hopes - a year better.
"We've seen some huge improvements by several players," he said. "We've had individual workouts, four days a week since July. Some of our kids shot as many as 1,000 jump shots per week. There's no substitute for that sort of repetition. It's how you get better as a player. All the players attended the workouts very well. They all got stronger and they all got better."
But better to the point where LaFayette could perhaps win a region title? Peppers won't go that far just yet, but says he does like the makeup of his team.
"I try to temper my expectations, but I think we can play with anybody. I really believe that," he continued. "We're not the biggest team, but we have guys inside that play bigger than what they are. It's still a tough region, but I like our guys. We have a lot of depth and all of our coaches really like this team. I think we can hang with anyone on any given night."
The roster includes six seniors, most of whom played significant minutes last season.
Shooting guard Tyrese Hunter is about to begin his second-year as a full-time starter. He earned Walker County Dream Team first team honors last year after averaging 12.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.2 steals a game. Another guard, LaTrail McClinic, has shown plenty of improvement in the off-season. A hard-working defender, McClinic is also one of the team's better shooters.
Payton Teems, a wing player, gives the Ramblers another good shooter from the outside. A solid role player, Peppers said Teems "does all the little things" in addition to being a great presence in the locker room. In the post, LaTavious McClinic is back to add depth to the position. McClinic played as a sophomore, but missed all of last season with a knee injury.
The final two seniors will also play in the post. Caleb Boyd, is a solid, dependable, blue-collar worker with an infectious positive attitude who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time on the court. Along side Boyd is Austin Shropshire, who is strong on the offensive boards and knows how to finish at the basket. He will give LaFayette extra athleticism on the low blocks.
The lone junior is Jon Morgan, the tallest player on the team at nearly 6-foot-4 with an even longer wing span. A Dream Team honorable mention pick as a sophomore, the left-hander is a solid rebounder and shooter and still has plenty of untapped potential.
Three sophomores will return as starters.
All guard Alex Kelehear did last year was earn All-Region honors and picked up the Class 4A Freshman of the Year award for the entire state by averaging 14 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.2 steals a night. Andrew Pendergrass, who joined Kelehear on the Walker County first team, scored 7.7 points, grabbed 6.1 rebounds and added 1.7 steals and 1.3 assists a night, while splitting time between the guard and forward spots. Meanwhile, hard-working post Dee Southern has matured physically since last year and can rebound, defender and score near the basket.
The other three sophomores will push for playing time on the varsity roster.
Wing player Rylan Russell is an excellent 3-point shooter and has improving skills. Athletic two-guard Vyshonn Daniel has improved his ball-handling to go with his solid shooting and defending, while guard Tyrese Marsh has plenty of potential and is one of team's best on-ball defenders.
Assisting Peppers from the bench will be Chris Logan, Jesse Peppers and Tommy Swanson, LaFayette's former head coach. Peppers played for Swanson at Trion High School and was an assistant under Swanson for seven years before becoming the head coach at LaFayette.
"I love having (Tommy) around," Peppers added. "He's been a great addition. He's an excellent coach and he's been a big help, especially back in the summer. We are all very fortunate to have him on our staff."
LaFayette has been mentioned by some in the know as one of the favorites in new-look region and Peppers said his team has a chance to be special if he can get everyone to buy into the big picture.
"We have to have good attitudes and have players embrace their roles," he continued. "We have to play with maximum effort and put the team first and that's something we stress every day. If we do those two things, everything else will take care of itself."