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Caleb Turrentine / The Herald Stanhope Elmore’s Jay Tillman (2) drives the ball against Wetumpka’s Michael Bass.

In each of the last two seasons, both Stanhope Elmore basketball teams did what it needed to do in the area tournament to extend their seasons into the sub-regional. However, on each occasion, the Mustangs fell short in the area championship game with losses to Selma and eventually saw their seasons end on the road in the next round.

With the new area alignment, Stanhope Elmore will not have to go through Selma this season and while they partially wanted another shot at the Saints, there is growing confidence the Mustangs can get over the hump this season.

“I think we maybe got the good side of the draw,” SEHS girls coach Kelvin Stokes said. “But also, you always want to play the best so coming in, I almost wanted to play Selma because you want that as a coach and as a competitor. But at the end of the day, I respect Wetumpka and Benjamin Russell the same way.”

The girls team has several key pieces returning this season and that may be a bigger reason than the area changes for their rising their expectations. The Mustangs return four starters including their two leading scorers

“We always want to get better and we just want to have a better season than last year,” Stokes said. “And even just having a season is exciting because we weren’t sure we would even get to play. But as for expectations, we are excited because we have so many coming back.”

Brooke Burkett will be back to lead the offense after finishing with 14.2 points and 5.5 assists per game last year. She also set a school record with a 40-point game late in the season. Stokes said Burkett could be moving into a different role this year to provide her more opportunities to have big scoring games rather than being the team’s lone facilitator.

That’s where new starting point guard Syndey Bailey comes into the picture. The Mustangs hope she can provide some relief to Burkett and still allow the offense to get into sets quickly even when defenses focus in on denying Burkett the ball.

“We want to get (Brooke) off the ball more because she is a scoring guard,” Stokes said. “Sydney has grown tremendously so I’m excited for her. I think she’s ready for this challenge. I really think that she will excel.”

Kelbi Johnson also returns and is expected to take on a starting role in the backcourt. Jayden Thomas is back at forward while Tamia Young will move back into the starting spot at center.

“Jump shots will keep you in it but it won’t win it for you,” Stokes said. “I’m old school and like to see that two players in the posts. We have post players so we want to be able to pound it in the post.”

The boys team has some returning pieces of its own but one of the biggest challenges will be replacing last year’s Elmore County Player of the Year in DJ Jamerson. David Cochran is entering his first season in charge of the varsity program and while he admits replacing a player of Jamerson’s caliber will not be easy, he believes it is a challenge his team can get past.

“Losing somebody like that who was a player of the year is tough,” Cochran said. “It just is. But we have a great group of kids and they have accepted the challenge. We have had guys step up in big ways. We have to move on and get better and we have done that.”

One of the keys to replacing Jamerson’s production will come from Jay Tillman who returns as the team’s starting point guard. After recording 9.1 points and 4.2 assists per game last season, the Mustangs are hoping Tillman can take on a bigger role and he has already shown he’s ready for it.

“Jay has been a leader from day one ever since I stepped in,” Cochran said. “He’s always blowing my phone up trying to get in the gym and do this or that. He’s doing a great job of getting everybody on the same page. He’s really like the coach on the floor.”

Tillman will not be alone in the backcourt with Pat Williams returning and likely to take on a starting role. Teddy Harris was a starter two years ago and has returned after a year at Autauga but he will miss the start of the season due to an injury he suffered during football season and his timetable for a return is still unclear.

“We’re still trying to figure that out and piece everything together,” Cochran said. “The starting lineup is definitely still in the works. We want to find the group that has good chemistry and comradery together. There are so many options we can go with and that’s credit to the kids.”

Dylon Williams is another player Cochran believes could be set for a breakout season. He averaged 9.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last season but now he could move into an even bigger role, filling in a lot in the role Jamerson played last year.

While Williams could see some time in the post, he could also play on the wing which would leave post positions open for players like Reggie Duncan and William Whitlow Jr. Trey Killingsworth, Martin Toby and LaZarus Walker are also expected to fill in as rotation players.

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.