Warhorses ready to battle opponents and the unknown

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

First-year head coach Clint McElrath wasn't sure what to expect Nov. 9 when his Owen Warhorses hit the court to scrimmage Tuscola High. 

"This is going to be the first time I've seen them all out there on the court together," McErath said, hours before tip off. 

Owen junior Noah Moore drives the lane against a Tuscola defender on Nov. 9 in a scrimmage before the Warhorses' Nov. 14 season opener against North Henderson.

It's been a year since the varsity basketball team at Owen opened its season, one in which it finished 23-4 and advanced to the third round of the state playoffs. Things are a lot different this year.

Gone is former head coach Chuck Robinson, who left to take the same position at his alma mater, North Buncombe, earlier this year. Three 1,000-point career scorers are gone as well, following the graduation of Brian Bartlett and Mathew Brown and Ben Craig's transfer to Christ School. 

"It's kind of like a brand new team," McElrath said. "We're returning some seniors who played last year, like Jadon Watson, Isaac King, Max Lally, Zac Fisher and junior Noah Moore, who played last year as well. That core group is coming back."

Those players will be joined by a pair of senior transfers, 6-foot-6 center Tate Kitchen, who missed his junior season at McDowell High with a broken ankle and point guard D.J. Garnett, who played for Asheville High last season. 

Senior Tate Kitchen, who transferred to Owen from McDowell over the summer, shoots a free throw during a Nov. 9 scrimmage at home against Tuscola.

"We've also got a few players who played JV last year moving up," McElrath said. 

McElrath, who teaches history at the school, took over the program in June. 

"I've just tried not to overwhelm them," he said. "With the limited time we've had together I want them to be good at the things we have in place right now. With a mature team like last year's team you can have a lot of different sets and defenses, but for us right now we're pretty basic. But once we get good at that we'll expand our defenses and offenses."

Jadon Watson, who head coach Clint McElrath calls "the strongest kid on the team," battles a Tuscola defender in the paint.

One of the keys to how well his squad adapts to a new coach and new players will be how players gel on the court, McElrath said. 

"The big issue is building our chemistry," he said, "that and how we overcome adversity we face early on. A team like this that's fresh and new, it's really how we react to that that's going to determine how we look later in the season and in conference play."

One thing McElrath isn't concerned about is the ability of his players.

"I have a talented group," he said. "We're pretty deep. I have 14 players, and there are 10 that I can trust at any time on the floor."

Perhaps the most important quality of the Warhorses, according to McElrath, is how "coachable" the team is. 

"This is a great group," he said. "I've faced no push-back from them since I started coaching them. They listen and they do what I ask them to do. They're all in."

What McElrath is asking his players to do this year is excel in their individual roles on the court. 

Garnett is a "natural-born leader," McElrath said, which is an optimal quality for a point guard, a position that is typically an extension of the head coach on the court. 

"He's a great point guard with a high basketball IQ. He can score, but he also looks to facilitate," he said. 

Other wing players like Ty Davidson and Moore, who averaged just over 4 points per game last season while appearing in 29 games, add a lot on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, McElrath said. 

"Ty has really been great so far. He's going to be starting at our 'three' position (small forward)," he said. "Noah Moore is probably the leading scorer of the returning players I have. He has the ability to put up a lot of buckets."

Complementing those perimeter players is a stable of post players, who bring size and strength to the roster. Kitchen's solid frame gives the Warhorses a presence in the middle of the paint. He's complemented by 6-foot-4 forwards Lally and Wyatt Lehman, as well as Watson, who is 6-foot-2. 

"Jadon (Watson) is probably the strongest kid in our school," McElrath said. "He should dominate the boards and just kind of dominate inside, in general."

Owen has a "tough schedule," early in the season, McElrath said. Since the team had not played a game together until a Nov. 9 scrimmage at home against Tuscola, it is crucial that players learn to gel on the floor prior to the Warhorses first Western Highlands Conference contest on Jan. 5 against Polk. 

"The biggest challenge we'll face between now and December is getting them to play how I want, so it's like a transition phase," he said. "Some of them have been working out with me since the fall and some are just getting (here). So the thing I'm looking at between now and December is just how well guys are picking things up and reacting to everything going on around them."