Conference: South Atlantic
Division: NCAA Division II
Coach: Blake Mellinger (seventh season)
Last season: 9-20 (6-16)
Key returners: Chance Sheffey, G, sr.; Briggs Parris, G, soph.; Cameron Whiteside, G, soph.; Kaeleb Carter, F, soph.; Eric Okenchi, F, sr.
Key losses: Michal Seals, G; Jordan Pointer, F
Promising newcomers: Izeah Parker, F; Drew Greene, PG
Outlook: Offensive balance and versatility will be the strengths for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise Highland Cavaliers as they aim for their first winning season since 2010.
Sharpshooting guard Briggs Parris is the top returning scorer as he averaged 16 points per game last season and shot 41 percent from 3-point range. Cameron Whiteside (13.3 points, 4.9 rebounds per game) can score from the perimeter, has a mid-range game and can attack the rim as well.
Kaeleb Carter (9.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is the team’s best defender and can also score when needed, while 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward Eric Okenchi (12.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and point guard Chance Sheffey (8.4 ppg, 3.0 apg) have plenty of experience too.
Izeah Parker and Drew Greene are two highly-touted freshmen.
Parker chose UVa-Wise over Coppin State after starring at Hopewell High School near Richmond, Virginia, and head coach Blake Mellinger calls the 6-foot-8 post player the mostly highly-recruited player the Cavs have signed in his tenure.
Greene is a 6-foot-3 point guard from High Point, North Carolina, who played at Wesleyan Christian Academy.
The Cavs opened the season with back-to-back losses to King University (84-74) and Lees-McRae (89-78). Carter had 20 points in the loss to King, while Whiteside went for 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals in the loss to Lees-McRae.
UVa-Wise is in its first season in the South Atlantic Conference after previously competing in the Mountain East Conference. The Cavs were pegged for an 11th-place finish in the 12-team league in the preseason coaches poll.
SAC powerhouses Lincoln Memorial (sixth) and Queens (eighth) were ranked in the top-10 nationally in the NCAA Division II preseason coaches poll.
How does Mellinger feel about his team’s new surroundings?
“Apprehensive, but also excited,” he said. “Apprehensive because of the unknowns that go along with joining a new league. I think the SAC will be one of the best DII basketball conferences in the country this year. We’re excited for the challenge.”
Coach’s Quote: “This team has the potential to be the best team I’ve had here during my time as a head coach.”
Conference: South Atlantic
Division: NCAA Division II
Coach: Jamie Cluesman (second season)
Last season: 13-16 (11-11)
Key returners: Hanna Oliver, G, jr.; Kalee Johnson, G/F, jr.; Mackenzie King, G/F, soph.; Ada Stanley, F/C, jr.; Cynita Webb, F/C, sr.
Key losses: Ashley Cullen, G; Nokomis Williams, F; Janice Ladson, G
Promising newcomers: Caitlynn Ross, PG; Nia Vanzant, G; Leah Kestner, F; Alyssa Padilla, G
Outlook: Lee High graduate Jamie Cluesman fared well in her first season at the helm of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise program in 2018-19 as the Highland Cavaliers more than doubled their win total from the year before.
The Cavs should be even better this winter as the top five scorers are back in the fold and join a group of promising freshmen.
Cynita Webb (13.3 points, 10.8 rebounds per game during the 2018-19 season), Ada Stanley (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Hannah Oliver (9.8 ppg), former Happy Valley High School star Kalee Johnson (8.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Makenzie King (5.3 ppg) are proven.
Webb is a double-double machine as her stats indicate and was a second-team choice on the preseason All-South Atlantic Conference squad, while Johnson has the ability to play both inside and outside and can fill it up. That duo starred in UVa-Wise’s 87-53 crushing of Converse on Saturday.
That win followed a 64-55 loss to Western Carolina of the NCAA Division I Southern Conference in an exhibition game and a 94-83 season-opening setback to Conference Carolinas power Limestone.
Guards Caitlynn Ross (Midway High School, Kingston, Tennessee) and Nia Vanzant (Blackman High School, Murfreesboro, Tennessee) headline the crop of newcomers for the squad.
Freshmen Leah Kestner (Chilhowie) and Alyssa Padilla (Lebanon) from Southwest Virginia have also gotten minutes for the Highland Cavaliers thus far.
“We will rely heavily on our defense,” Cluesman said. “We took a lot of pride on the defensive end and will continue to do so this year.”
UVa-Wise is in its first season as a member of the South Atlantic Conference after previously competing in the Mountain East Conference and the Highland Cavaliers were predicted for an 11th-place finish in the 12-team league in the preseason coaches poll.
Coach’s Quote: “I feel like our top returners have stepped up in all aspects. I challenged them at the end of last year to become better leaders and I am very proud of the progress they have made with that. They are holding each other accountable and pushing each other every day on the court. This is something that I feel we lacked last year. Adding our freshmen into the mix has given us more depth and I’m excited to watch them grow and develop as the season goes along. Our team chemistry has been exceptional and we continue to jell every day.”