By Devin Golden
— It was the third quarter of North Murray High School’s boys basketball team’s game against Ringgold on Feb. 1 at Mountaineer Arena. As North Murray post Zach Vess raced back down the court following his alley-oop dunk, the home crowd started the chant: “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
The chant resurfaced in Chatsworth both later in that Mountaineers win and the victories that followed, and it followed the senior to Sonoraville for the Region 5-3A championship and then to the second round of the Class 3A state tournament. Averaging 22.3 points and 15.2 rebounds per game can do that. And Vess leading his program to a postseason milestone with a state tournament victory didn’t hurt, either.
“I put up a Facebook post of last year’s student section with everyone getting pumped up,” he said. “From that Ringgold game on, the fans really showed up.”
Later in that game against the Tigers, when Vess was about to throw down a fast-break dunk, a Ringgold player intentionally fouled him to stop the feat. Mountaineers fans expressed a different opinion: “You can’t stop him!”
Pick almost any moment from this season, and chances are that statement would have been appropriate.
For his play this year, Vess has been named The Daily Citizen’s 2012-2013 All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Joining him on this year’s all-area team, as selected by the newspaper’s sports staff based on input from area coaches, are Dalton’s Alex Bautista, Murray County’s Brady Todd and Northwest Whitfield’s O’Shea Hill and Tanner Quarles.
The 6-foot-5-inch Vess led the Mountaineers in points, rebounds, blocks and crowd-pleasing dunks. He had a season-high 35 points against Ridgeland and became the first North Murray player (and the only one so far) to surpass the career threshold of 1,000 points. He was also the player every opposing coach tried to stop first and foremost, but with the help of Mountaineers coach Tim Ellis, Vess made statistical contributions despite facing double- and triple-team defenses.
“In the beginning of the season, (the defensive attention) bothered me,” Vess said. “I talked with coach Ellis and he told me to find my inner peace. I found my inner peace and it helped. I started realizing it’s going to happen and gaining patience in the game, finding different ways to score.”
Ellis knew other teams understood they needed to stop Vess. He also knew that would be a difficult task — particularly once other Mountaineers were able to figure out their roles.
“We always went into the game — no matter what game we were going into — wanting to establish the post,” Ellis said. “Once we established the post, we felt like that loosened up everything else. Early on we were kind of finding our roles and finding our niches, and they were relying a little bit too much on Zach. He was getting double-teamed and triple-teamed.
“Then as we started getting the open looks and knocking down shots that we had to, that only made him that much more dangerous, because teams couldn’t completely triple-team him. They still tried a lot of times, but he’s such a relentless player and has such a desire to be successful that he wouldn’t be denied.”
When Vess was younger, he was a little more brash on the court. That has changed. He isn’t loud and boisterous anymore. He’s a well-mannered, soft-spoken teenager off the court. He doesn’t view himself as anything beyond confident in his abilities.
“My sophomore year and junior year, I was more of an energetic person,” he said. “I still am. I’m still energetic but the crowd doesn’t notice as much. As a sophomore, I liked to beat my chest. I was a young guy scoring on seniors. Now I just like to go out there and play and enjoy it.”
There are some things Vess did that don’t show up in statistics. Ellis touted his ability to pass out of the post to North Murray’s shooters — Austen Horn, Drew Mosteller and Zach Sanford — or find forward Brady Swilling on a weak-side cut to the basket.
“For the majority of the season, Zach was not going to force (passes) into a double-team or triple-team,” said Ellis, who compared Vess to former NBA star Karl Malone. “He was going to find the open guy and re-establish himself.”
On defense, his height helped him block shots and force opposing players to readjust their shots.
“He was so much more disciplined this year (on defense),” Ellis said. “Watching film this year, he did some great things. But defensively, and maybe it’s a maturity thing, but this year he was so disciplined. He would give people fits because he didn’t want to go out and show how tough he was by blocking every shot. ... He had such a great wingspan. (He could) just alter shots. It’s something that is very noticeable and you have to game plan for.”
Despite new wrinkles like the MVP chant, this season wasn’t the first time Vess got attention for his skill. He was on the all-area team each of the previous two seasons as well — he averaged 17.7 points and 14.4 rebounds per game as a junior — and said at the beginning of the season in an interview with The Daily Citizen that being chosen the area’s player of the year was an individual goal. However, it was never secondary to team accomplishments — and there were quite a few of those.
The Mountaineers lost just twice on their home court, won their own Mistletoe Madness tournament at midseason, won LaFayette’s Comcast Christmas Classic, established a program record for wins in a season with 22, finished runner-up in the region to Cartersville and beat Hart County 69-58 in the opening round of the Class 3A state tournament for the program’s first state tourney victory. North Murray lost 48-39 to College Park’s Woodward Academy in the second round, the final time Vess and his five fellow seniors played for the black and gold.
“I’m proud that we got to play a state game at home,” Vess said. “We might not have been the most talented team, but we worked hard and our coach busted our tails hard, so we deserved it.”
Here’s a look at the rest of this year’s team:
• Alex Bautista, Dalton: Stepping out from the shadow of former teammate Tristen Harrell — The Daily Citizen’s 2011-12 All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year — the senior forward became the Catamounts’ new leader.
Bautista and Vess are the only returning members of last year’s all-area squad. In each of the past two seasons, Dalton reached the state tournament and played for a region title.
“Alex stepped in and became the focal point of the offense,” Dalton coach Mike Duffie said. “He led us in scoring and was one of our leading rebounders. He became the pressure ball handler, just like Tristen was. He stepped into the same role Tristen played.”
Bautista averaged 17.5 points, five rebounds, three assists and 2.4 steals per game. He shot an efficient 63 percent from the field.
“He has that thing you can’t coach — anticipation and reading the situation,” Duffie said. “When to go and when to stay. He has that intuitive play that makes him a special player. You either have it or you don’t.”
Dalton finished 19-8 this season, and in each of the wins and losses, one could look at Bautista and determine whether the team was rolling or struggling. His facial expressions never hid the truth.
“He was definitely a barometer for us,” Duffie said. “A lot of the kids fed off Alex and what he was doing. We could judge how the group was doing by looking at Alex.”
• O’Shea Hill, Northwest: On the senior post’s shoulders, the Bruins won their first region title and hosted a state tournament game for the first time.
Hill’s play — he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds — led Northwest coach Ryan Richards to label him the “Most Valuable Player” on arguably the most successful team in program history.
“I never had a kid who played in the paint with the dominance that he did,” Richards said. “In my 10-year tenure, he’s definitely one of the two or three best.”
Hill, whose season high for points in a game was 31, also averaged four steals and three blocks per game. In short, he did a lot for the Bruins.
“It’s hard to say that there’s one thing that stood out,” Richards said. “He has a knack for blocking shots, has a good understanding of the game and has an ability to make plays and steals. He’s also a leader and a captain.
“You can have a good player with a bad attitude, but he was a good player with a great attitude.”
A 3-for-3 sweep of rival Dalton — home-and-home regular-season matchups and Region 7-4A championship game at the Cats Den — is also on the list of accomplishments for the Bruins and Hill, who was selected by coaches as the Region 7-4A Player of the Year and signed with Dalton State College this past week.
“Bringing home a championship, that’s what great players do and that’s what he did for us,” Richards said. “Making it more special, it has been eluding us for (a long time).”
This is the first all-area selection for Hill, who earned honorable mention as a junior.
• Tanner Quarles, Northwest: When he was red hot, the senior forward could shoot it from the parking lot.
Exaggeration aside, he might have tried it from that far away if given the chance
Quarles set a program record for 3-pointers in a season — 92, breaking Tanner Reno’s mark of 77 in 2009 — and averaged 13 points for the region champion Bruins. In the region tournament semifinals against River Ridge, Northwest overcame a double-digit second-half deficit and took the lead on Quarles’ 4-point play. It was part of his 17-point effort that led the Bruins to a 59-56 victory.
“When he gets rolling, he catches fire,” Richards said. “There were very few games when he hit just two (3-pointers). Most games it was four, all the way up to six or seven. He put up some extra shots that may not have been great shots, but it worked in the end.”
Like Hill, Quarles had started since he was a sophomore, and with experience came progress.
“He started to put the ball on the floor and became a really good passer,” Richards touted. “He and O’Shea worked well as a tandem. O’Shea would find him and he would find O’Shea.
“He never was a great defensive player, but he became good at trapping and pressing. All of that gets overshadowed because he was a 3-point shooter.”
This is Quarles’ first all-area selection.
• Brady Todd, Murray County: Another senior post, Todd wasn’t the typical big man banging against bodies and fighting through opponents for tough baskets.
He did all those things — he just wasn’t very big.
The 6-1 Todd averaged 12.6 points and 4.7 rebounds on a team centered around getting him the ball and having him find an open shooter. He also had to step in and take charges (he averaged one per game) while organizing the defense, but he still found time to average 1.4 steals per game.
“The thing about Brady was he was the centerpiece of our offense and our defense,” Indians coach Greg Linder said. “Defensively, in our matchup (zone), he handled things and was the communication piece in the center of our matchup. Offensively, it was centered around going inside-out with the basketball. He has the ability to score versus taller players.”
Murray County, which competed in Region 7-2A, finished 13-13, with a victory against rival Dalton in December among the season’s highlights. Todd had 11 points in that game but started becoming the focus of opposing defenses later.
“As the season went on, he started garnering more and more attention in the post,” Linder said. “What he understood about being a post player was it’s easier to (be double-teamed) there. ... He knew if he didn’t have position — or was being double-teamed — to get the ball out.”
This is the first all-area selection for Todd, who earned honorable mention last season.
• Honorable mention: Christian Heritage — Will Patterson (Sr., G), Michael McKinney (Sr., P); Dalton — Rico Mears (Sr., G), Demond Rucker (Sr., P); Murray County — Martin Contreras (Sr., P); North Murray — Drew Mosteller (Sr., G), Zach Sanford (Sr., G), Austen Horn (Sr., F), and Brady Swilling (Sr., P); Northwest — Kaleb King (Sr., G), Tevin McDaniel (Jr., G), Tanner Bailey (Jr., F), and Caleb Storey (Jr., F); Southeast Whitfield — Chaz Payne (So., P).