published Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Worthington heads strong Bledsoe team

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    Bledsoe County's Jamal Worthington plays in the game against Meigs County on Tuesday at Meigs County High School.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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Boys' teams to watch (alphabetical order)

Arts & Sciences: The speedy Patriots are very deep. They reached a 2012 Class A sectional despite winning only 13 games with a young squad, and they are poised to return to the state tournament after a one-year hiatus.

Baylor: The Red Raiders won 18 games and advanced to the Division II-AA state semifinals, where they fell to Briarcrest Christian. They return 6-foot-7 forward Reggie Upshaw and guard Clay Born, as well as newcomer Michael O'Connor.

Bledsoe County: The Warriors advanced to the Region 4-AA quarterfinals last season. They return four starters, led by senior forward Jamal Worthington and guard Blake McCloud, as well as junior post Nathaniel Collins.

Hamilton Heights: The Hawks return 6-7 post Rokas Paulauskas and guard Jhony Monteiro and have added a number of pieces in an attempt to claim another National Association of Christian Athletics championship.

Howard: The Hustlin' Tigers advanced to the Class AA state quarterfinals last season and return depth at their guard and post positions. They did lose sophomore Wayne Caudle, a promising 6-7 post who transferred to Memphis.

Boys' players to watch (alphabetical order)

Daniel Brooks, Gordon Lee senior guard: One of the school's all-time leading scorers, the four-year starter led the Trojans last year to the state playoffs with 20.5 points, 5.4 assists, 4.3 steals and 4.2 rebounds a game.

Bryce Copeland, Bradley Central senior guard: Copeland missed half of last season with an injury but averaged 15 points per game for the Bears.

Stedmon Ford, Notre Dame senior point guard: The speedy Ford is a two-time Best of Preps honoree and averaged 18 points and five assists per game last season.

Reggie Upshaw, Baylor senior forward: The 6-7 Upshaw, who signed with Middle Tennessee State, averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds as a junior.

Jamal Worthington, Bledsoe County senior guard/forward: The 6-4, athletic Worthington averaged 19 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season.

PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time in 30 years, Bledsoe County has a boys' basketball team that could and should compete for a district championship. The Warriors have the horses to do it, and one in particular -- senior guard/forward Jamal Worthington -- will get ridden as far as his broad shoulders can take them.

The small-knit Pikeville community has embraced this team, and not solely because of the high-flying Worthington. Guard Blake McCloud and post Nathaniel Collins give the Warriors legitimacy beyond dunks and no-look passes. Yet it all starts with Worthington's icy demeanor on the court.

"It's kind of my nature," he said. "I try not to be a ball hog and I try to keep it cool, but if I get on and can get where I want to go, I feel confident in doing it."

Bledsoe coach Mark Cagle has had Worthington since sixth grade when he coached at the middle school, so he's familiar with how the senior plays. The thought is simple: When the switch is turned on, watch out.

Cagle recalled a moment from a recent scrimmage against Red Bank. A Lion dunked on Worthington, but while the Red Bank fans were rejoicing about the play, Worthington drove the length of the court and got a dunk of his own.

"He never really gets upset," Cagle said. "I've only seen him get mad two or three times, because usually his frustration is inward with himself. He's better about staying focused, and most of the time he's unselfish. We try to get him to be selfish for himself sometimes, because we don't think he does enough for himself."

Other programs have taken notice of Worthington's skills, and not just when breaking down game tape. Three schools attempted to recruit him last season, but he chose to stay at Bledsoe.

"For him to stick with us shows his loyalty to the school, his teammates and me," Cagle said. "We try to make sure that he's taken care of -- not financially, but with the knowledge that he can count on us and trust us. If he were to go somewhere else, he doesn't necessarily know if that person would be there. I tell all my kids that 24/7/365, if they need anything, to call me and I'll do whatever I can.

"I've been hauling him around since he was 10, and it means a lot to his teammates and me."

Lee University, which is going to NCAA Division II next season, has made him a scholarship offer. A number of Division I schools also have shown interest in the versatile Worthington, who averaged 19 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals last season.

Worthington spent a lot more time training on his own this past offseason.

"I've got things pretty good here," he said. "Roy Pankey is my trainer. He's there any day I want to go, to push me and not let me slack up. You can't go to Bledsoe and act like you're going to get better by playing around. You can't just run the court five on five against college players, because they're not here, so it's the training.

"I have to train harder because I'm not surrounded with great talent like some schools in Chattanooga."

Cagle and the Warriors now are faced with a word they haven't had to deal with in past seasons: expectations. They will be expected to compete for the District 7-AA title, following last season's third-place finish in the tournament and a 43-point loss to DeKalb County in the Region 4 quarterfinals.

"We've talked about expectations every day in practice," Cagle said. "We lost only one starter from last year, but we can only take things one game at a time. Before, we weren't expected to win: We could compete, but other teams were more athletic. But this season we've got every chance. I'm not saying we're going to win, but it's our goal."

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