By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
Replacing 23 points and 16 rebounds a game is never easy for a basketball team.
No one knows that better than Jody Fuller, who was the recipient of that production last season from Devon Johnson at Richlands.
While Johnson is now playing football at Marshall, there is another Johnson that will play a key role for the Blue Tornado this season.
A.J. Johnson, a standout receiver on the Richlands football team, will serve as point guard for the Blue Tornado, and the senior understands what his responsibilities will be.
“I am prepared for it, I know what I have to do,” Johnson said. “I have to take care of the ball and have no turnovers, I just have to play smart.”
When Johnson isn’t shooting the ball, he’ll need to find the open shooter, which could be junior Ben Brown or senior wing Gabe Hunsaker, both of whom averaged double figures in scoring last season.
“It is going to be a lot of fun,” Hunsaker said. “I am just excited to be able to play with my friends, it will fun.”
Two of those friends, Todd McGlothlin and Michael Horton, that had been expected to combine efforts to fill the shoes of Devon Johnson had to step away from the game because of injuries and other interests.
“Devon was a big factor last year,” said Devon’s brother, A.J. “He really will be missed this year, but I think we will be all right,”
Fuller has now moved Hunsaker closer to the basket, along with J.T. Anderson, Zach Johnson and Evan Meadows from a roster that has dropped from 12 to 10. The Blues played with just nine players last season.
“We are low on numbers, but we have plenty of people that are playing,” Johnson said. “I am really excited about this season, I think we will do really good.”
Size will be an issue for the Blues, which lost 6-foot-4 McGlothlin and 6-2 Horton, and have no one who stands over 6-3. Richlands has tried to compensate by running the floor in recent seasons, and that won’t change this year as long as it is a controlled transition game.
“I would say we are an average height basketball team for Southwest Virginia,” Fuller said. “If we can run and gun, play under control and make good decisions that is our first option always, and we will have to get organized if we can’t do that.”
All of the Blues know they’ll have to increase their production, not only in scoring, but will have to help replace Devon Johnson’s production on the glass.
“We are all going to have to step up and do our jobs,” said Hunsaker, who has been slowed by a calf injury of his own. “I am sure other people will step up and do a pretty good job.
“We will have to depend on them a little bit on that and we will all have to rebound some more.”
Richlands is 0-3 on the young season, falling twice to Graham (74-37, 71-46) and also at Honaker (61-50). That continues a trend that began last season when the Blue Tornado started 1-8.
However, the Blues went on a 9-4 run before losing their final three, finishing 10-15 after a loss in the regionals to Tazewell.
“We might start off bad, but I think we will rise up at the end of the year,” A.J. Johnson said. “Just like last year, I think we will go down a little bit and then go up, just like we did then.”
At least the Blue Tornado, which is slated to play Haysi in a tournament at Twin Valley on Thursday, didn’t have to wait as long as normal to get the football players.
Fuller was hoping for a better start, not only because of getting those players sooner, but the offseason work that included 25 or 30 games played during three summer camps and open gym that allowed the players to work on their games.
“Hopefully we won’t be off to such a slow start this year as we were last year,” Fuller said. “I am hoping we won’t have as big a struggle early in the year, hopefully we can start a little quicker.”
Fuller doesn’t hesitate to brag on what awaits in the final season of the Southwest District. Carroll County lost just one player from an 18-4 team while Abingdon (Josh Hess, Mack Owens) and Tazewell (Noah Walker, Jalen Jordan) are talented, and Marion can’t be discounted.
The Blues will open their SWD slate by hosting the Scarlet Hurricane on Jan. 4.
“District in my opinion, is probably as good as it has been since the days of Ahmad Bradshaw,” said Fuller, of Bradshaw, who led Graham to the Group AA state semifinals early last decade. “I really think it is going to be a very, very tough district slate this year.”
Yet, Johnson expects the Blue Tornado to compete with those clubs.
“I don’t know, it will be tough, we have got Abingdon and Carroll, but I think we will be all right,” Johnson said. “I think we will do pretty good.”
What Richlands hopes to do is finally win a Region IV game, something the Blue Tornado has apparently never done.
“I really thought last year was going to be the year we was going to do it because we started 1-8 last year and at times it was really tough to watch,” said Fuller, who felt the lack of depth wore down his players as the season reached the end. “Once the switch flipped last year and the kids understood their roles and what we were trying to do we really started to gel.”
Finding that right combination again is what the Blues are working toward, and Johnson was pleased with the way his club was going about their work in preparation prior to the season.
“We would love to win a region game,” Johnson said. “Our practices are really good, we are doing really well, we are coming together as a team better than last year really.”
Hunsaker and the Blues hope that togetherness pays off with success.
“We want to do way better than we did last year,” Hunsaker said. “We’re looking forward to a winning season, we just want to do the best we can.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at firstname.lastname@example.org