With basketball season almost to its mid-regular season point, teams in Williamson County are trying to figure out the best path forward in a very uncharted path of winter sports in COVID-19.
Energized by two out-of-state transfers, Ravenwood is off to its best start in eight years.
“We’ve almost equaled our win total from a year ago and it’s not even Christmas yet,” said Raptors coach Patrick Whitlock, whose team was 8-2 and 5-0 in District 11-AAA before the holiday.
Ravenwood finished 9-18 after falling in the first round of the district tournament last season.
The last time the Raptors got off to a start like this was in 2012 when they won 10 of their first 11 en route to the Region 6-AAA semifinals.
Ben Bonga’s family moved to Brentwood from Chicago in early October “because sports are essentially shut down in Illinois and the family was in a position to move,” Whitlock said. “He’s a starter for us now.”
Bonga, a 6-2 senior wing, is averaging 9 points per game.
Junior Noah Clifford, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound post player from the Bay Area in California, also transferred to Ravenwood.
“He is just a fantastic player,” Whitlock said. “They’re not playing high school sports (in the Bay Area) either. A lot of people can do remote work now and Nashville is a place they want to move to, so we’ve been the beneficiary of that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports for Bonga and Clifford in Illinois and California.
“(Noah) can actually take you out on the perimeter, he’s a very good 3-point shooter, he can handle the ball, very good passer – a very complete player,” said Whitlock of Clifford, who’s averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds per game.
Clifford transferred from De La Salle (Concord, Calif.), which set a national record in football with a 151-game winning streak from 1992-2004.
He didn’t play football there, but he did play defensive line for the Raptors this season.
Jake Mulder, a 6-7 junior forward, leads Ravenwood in scoring at (14 ppg). Senior point guard Nick Dang and junior forward Matt Williams are also playing big roles.
“Honestly, I think our biggest strength right now is we’re pretty deep,” Whitlock said. “We’re playing about 10 to 12 guys each game, which is pretty rare. And we can play any style.”
Ravenwood scored 84 points in a win over Independence and only 58 in a victory over Father Ryan.
“We would prefer to play uptempo and get wide-open and get up and down, but we can put lineups on the floor that can play just about any style,” Whitlock said.
Franklin, Brentwood, Summit and Ravenwood figure to battle for the district title. Page, Centennial and Independence seem to be on the bubble, but could get in the mix.
COVID-19 has created plenty of issues for teams everywhere.
“I think from a coaching perspective, it’s a lot of work to make sure you have all your ducks in a row in case a kid on the team gets it and another kid has to be contact traced,” Whitlock said.
“And then just the uncertainty of the schedule. We were scheduled to play in a tournament [last] Monday, Tuesday and (Wednesday) and it got canceled so we had to fill in a couple games at the last minute.”
Some Ravenwood students are remote learning, some are online, others are in person, creating a different feeling for everything at school.
The normal Tuesday-Friday rhythm of games is gone.
“Some teams can go two weeks without playing a game, so that’s kind of crazy,” Whitlock said. “We had a stretch there around Thanksgiving where the whole school was remote for two weeks. We’ll find out in early January if we go back in person or remote.”
Whitlock kidded that he doesn’t want to check his phone because there is always the chance of losing players to the virus or contact tracing.
Brentwood is off to a 4-2 start, including a 1-1 record in District 11-AAA.
“We have a chance to be really, really good,” Bruins coach Greg Shirley said. “We beat a very good Clarksville Northeast (10-2) team.”
Brentwood also defeated Station Camp, Page and Oakland. The Bruins lost to Ensworth and Franklin.
Four starters return from last year’s 22-9 Region 6-AAA semifinalist.
Johns Hopkins signee John Windley debuted with a career-high 35 points in a season-opening loss to Ensworth. Tigers point guard Skyy Clark, a Kentucky commit, countered with a school-record 51.
Windley is averaging over 20 points per game and leads the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg).
Senior point guard Griffin Burke (13.3 ppg, 4.8 spg) scored 24 points, including an 8-of-12 showing from 3-point range, in the Bruins’ win over Page.
Windley and Burke are both shooting over 90% from the foul line. Windley, Daniel Cochran (7.5 ppg) and Burke are all hitting over 40% from 3-point range.
Macen Redner (11.7 ppg) and Jake Brock round out Brentwood’s four-guard offense.
Cochran, a 6-6 freshman guard/forward, scored 17 points against Page.
Senior Dustin Bluhm, a 6-7 center, gives the Bruins a strong inside presence.
Guard Davis White scored 10 points in his first game back from football season.
Shirley, who is recovering from a battle with COVID-19, hopes to return to the court Jan. 4 for Brentwood’s game against Nolensville.
One season after making it to the pandemic-shortened Class AA semifinals, Nolensville has won seven of its first eight games.
“We’re still learning a lot about our team and trying to figure out what our best rotation is,” Lady Knights coach Chris Ladd said. “In the meantime, we’ve managed to win some games so it’s a pretty good start for us.”
Two starters, Zoe Piller and Caymin Ladd, return from last season’s 28-4 team.
Piller, a 6-foot West Florida signee, is averaging over 20 points and 12 rebounds per game. Her dad, Zach, played guard for the Titans from 1999-2006.
Caymin Ladd, a Freed-Hardeman signee, is averaging 10 points and 4 assists as a combo guard.
The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty with scheduling.
“COVID this year has been so frustrating and it’s just made us be so flexible mainly with scheduling,” Coach Ladd said. “We’ve been following the protocols in practice, keeping the girls separated as much as possible and wearing masks as much as possible.”
Sometimes opponents cancel games two days before they were supposed to be played because they were quarantined. Then the scramble begins to find a replacement opponent.
“It’s kind of a merry-go-round,” Coach Ladd said. “It’s almost day to day.”
Nolensville was scheduled to play in the Hickman County Christmas Tournament from Monday through Wednesday, but it got canceled so the Lady Knights will go to the Summit Classic instead.
Central Magnet, Giles County and Nolensville are likely to battle for the District 12-AA title.
The Lady Knights pride themselves in their half-court man-to-man defense.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re holding opponents under 40 points probably,” Ladd said. “We feel like if we do that, we have a chance to win.”
Nolensville will always wonder what might have been last season when the Lady Knights made it to the state semis, but the final two rounds were canceled during the beginning of the pandemic.
Ladd’s team was bracing for a Friday the 13th showdown with 33-1 Macon County when the season ended abruptly.
“I think we’ve left that, but of course people still bring it up when you see other coaches, other teams that followed us last year and it still hurts, but as a team we don’t talk about that at all,” Ladd said. “We’ve put that behind us and we know that we’re a brand-new team this year with new faces. Let’s hope we can finish this year, whatever that may be for us.”
Brentwood (6-3, 2-1 District 11-AAA) got a boost with the addition of Sydney Ryan, a former Hamilton Heights and Franklin standout.
“She’s a spectacular player, a Division I type of player,” Lady Bruins coach Myles Thrash said. “She’s a tremendous shooter, she can space the floor, very smart player.”
The 6-foot junior guard is averaging 14 points per game.
The Lady Bruins return three starters from last year’s 29-3 team that made it to the Class AAA quarterfinals.
Princeton signee Amelia Osgood is averaging about 17 points.
“She’s our engine,” Thrash said.
Sophie Roston, a 6-2 senior center, is averaging 10 points and six blocks per game.
Brentwood, Summit, Page and Ravenwood are expected to battle for the district championship, though Independence could push for the title.
Brentwood misses twins Delaney and Emily Trushel, who are freshmen at South Carolina-Aiken now.
The pandemic has added uncertainty to the Lady Bruins’ season.
“We’ve already had two cancellations due to COVID from other teams,” Thrash said. “It’s just a difficult time right now and it takes a lot of time and patience. We’re kind of keeping our fingers crossed, but at the same time we’re trying to make sure we do everything the right way on our end.”