JASPER, Tenn. - Without Preston Pickett, the Marion County basketball Warriors won the District 6-A tournament championship and advanced to the region quarterfinals last year. With him back this season, they hope he's worth at least one added win -- and even more.
An ankle injury late in the 2012-13 season sidelined Pickett, who at the time was averaging just over 20 points per game. This season they're 16-3, which includes a 10-0 district mark that assured them the top slot heading into tournament play.
Four starters besides Pickett are back from last year. Seven seniors lead the Warriors.
"We have a great group of kids that are hard workers," Pickett said. "We've practiced hard, and everything that a great basketball team needs, we've got it. We've learned how to win close games, and now we have a comfort level and know how to execute in the clutch.
"We're happy to be where we are, but this is just the regular season and that's not satisfying. We want to win the district [tournament] and go to the region and win, because the postseason is what counts."
Pickett, a 6-foot guard who this season is averaging 23 points, six rebounds, five steals and three assists, said that watching last season's postseason run from the bench was a "humbling" experience.
"I realized that it's a privilege to play basketball," he said. "After playing basketball for 15 years, it was very rough not being out there, and it motivated me. I wouldn't be the player I am today without that injury. My emotions were running high last season. It was wonderful to see the team win, but it was hard to sit on the bench and know I'm not seeing the floor for the rest of the season."
Marion coach Chuck Keef calls Pickett the "best all-around kid I've ever coached," as the senior also plays baseball and golf and has a 3.6 grade point average.
"He's quick as a cat and can cover a lot of ground," Keef said. "He's not the best defensive guy I've coached, but he anticipates what the opponent will do and usually ends up in the right spot to steal a pass. He understands the game of basketball."
Keef said the Warriors' biggest challenge now is to adjust their goals after having achieved their first objective -- winning the regular-season district title for the first time in recent memory. They have readjusted their focus on an undefeated district regular season and doing something that has happened only three times in the program's history: 20 wins.
"We've had some success, but we want to put this team's stamp in history," Keef said. "Winning the tournament last year was huge. We had an inexperienced team at the start of last year, and we played a tough schedule which I think prepared us for the tournament last year. Even though our record wasn't that great, we were battle-tested."
Hosting a sectional would be huge for the program. That hasn't happened since 1987.
"I think as the season has gone on, we've gotten stronger and really came together," Pickett said. "It could be great if we could put the pieces together and complete the puzzle."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.