The Cleveland High School boys' basketball team has been tough from the start this season.
After holding defending state champions Bearden and Knoxville Webb to a combined 90 points in signature road wins, the Blue Raiders got a spectacular performance Monday from Belmont signee JaCobi Wood.
Wood made seven 3-point baskets and set a school record with 50 points in an 85-64 win over Chestatee (Gainesville, Georgia) at Pigeon Forge High School. Charles Little had the previous record.
"We are locked in and really have bought in to the culture of this program," said Wood, who also surpassed 1,000 career points. "We trained harder than we ever have this offseason and really feel like we are in great shape. We are focused on challenging ourselves so by the time March comes around we have a chance to win a championship."
One of the first things new head coach Reggie Tucker did when he was given the keys to the program by Jason McCowan (239 wins in 12 years with Cleveland) this past July was to start getting his players in the best possible shape to build on a 29-win 2018-19 season. Most of the Blue Raiders worked out on the track during the offseason along with tough practices in the gym and sessions in the weightroom.
"The early-season results are a testament to how hard our guys work," Tucker said. "We went nine weeks through a conditioning program like we have never done before. I hired track coach Lonnie White to be our strength and conditioning coach, and he has done a phenomenal job getting our guys ready physically and mentally.
"Over those nine weeks they were running parachutes and getting quicker and faster. JaCobi played a whole game and scored 50 with guys picking him up full court and trying to guard him close. Not one time did you see he was tired."
Tucker says his group is passionate and continues to take it personally when they get scored on. Grant Hurst stole a pass late in overtime and hit the winning shot against East Hamilton for the program to win a third straight District 5-AAA championship last season.
With three starters back and the addition of East Hamilton transfer Morell Schramm, who is a versatile forward who can score in many ways and be a rim protector, Cleveland looks like the district favorite again.
Four of the Blue Raiders' first six games are against teams that made the state tournament last year, which includes matchups Friday and Saturday against Sevier County and Brainerd at Pigeon Forge.
The Blue Raiders also have home-and-road dates with Oak Ridge, Maryville and Cookeville, and they will face Tyner and Howard in the Chatt-Town Classic on Dec. 27 and 28 at Chattanooga State.
"We are focused on our day-to-day selves," Tucker said. "I tell our guys we don't practice, we prepare. Each day is a preparation day to us for February and March. We want to play the best teams out there. Our guys believe in the system and what we are trying to do."
A testament to what a great defense can provide along with clutch shooting, the Bradley Central Bearettes will be trying to defend their Class AAA state championship. Junior Jamaryn Blair and senior UTC signee Anna Walker have become one of the best duos in the state and can take over a game at any moment.
The Bearettes will have to fend off Mississippi State signee Madison Hayes and East Hamilton to earn Jason Reuter's squad a 10th straight district title.
Bailey McGinnis' Red Bank Lady Lions have won 42 games over the past two seasons and seem poised for another big year behind the leadership of senior Bailey Lee, who will join the 1,000 rebound club soon.
District 6-AA strong
Brainerd and Howard made state tournament runs last season and are expected to be in a thick hunt for the District 6-AA boys' title with Red Bank and Tyner. Kevin Halfacre Jr. returns with much experience at point guard for Brainerd's Panthers, who have made four trips to the state tournament since 2015.
McCallie's Eric Rivers is preparing for a state championship football game right now but is one of the top scorers in the area along with Michael Houge for Chattanooga Christian. Boyd Buchanan looks to be a major challenger to CCS for the Division II-A District 2 title with a stellar defense.
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.