The starters for North Murray High School’s boys basketball team have been on one another’s side since middle school.
So it makes sense they are the players coach Tim Ellis relies on to elevate the Mountaineers’ ceiling.
Austen Horn, Brady Swilling, Drew Mosteller, Zach Sanford and Zach Vess all attest that they endure more minutes on the court than most teams’ starters. As North Murray travels to Woodward Academy in College Park today for a second-round matchup in the Class 3A state tournament, the game could be another showcase of those five seniors carrying the season on their collective shoulders.
Because Ellis has entrusted them with that role, they are likely to be the main reason their year continues — or ends.
That’s what the five expect.
“If nobody gets in foul trouble,” said Vess, a 6-foot-5-inch center. “(Woodward) likes to push the tempo, so we might have to get a few breaks in. Yeah, we’ll probably have to play a lot of minutes.”
Earlier this season, Ellis said the Mountaineers’ lack of depth concerned him, and the effect has been one group eating up clock in big chunks.
“I’d say our starting five definitely plays the majority of minutes (compared to other teams),” Ellis said. “... Maybe that’s a flaw on my part. Those five are the ones who will get the majority of the minutes, but at the same time I think other guys have stepped up and proven they can do a little something.”
Jacob Sexton is the team’s sixth senior and in some games the first substitute. Omar Romero, a junior, and sophomore Hinton McConkey make up the eight-man rotation the Mountaineers employ. Still, it doesn’t go that deep some nights, and that hasn’t been the case in games where victory was most crucial.
“We’ve gone two or three games in a row with maybe only one of us coming out,” said Horn, a forward.
Against Cartersville in last Saturday’s Region 5-3A championship, Vess left the game only when he was in foul trouble and when he fouled out. The starting five — Mosteller and Sanford are guards, while Swilling is a post — played the entire third quarter and logged close to 28 of the 32 minutes.
“It really depends on who we’re playing,” Vess said. “During the season, unless it’s Gordon Central or Cartersville, most of the starters will get a break. In games like Gordon Central, Cartersville or the state playoffs, you only sub if (for) foul trouble.”
Said Sanford of North Murray’s 69-58 first-round win against Hart County this past Wednesday at home: “We played (almost) 32 minutes.”
They can handle that because of the practice style, Ellis said.
“Our practices are fast-paced,” Ellis said. “We don’t slow down as far as practice goes.”
Plus, the seniors are used to passing to one another and watching one another score. They all started playing together in sixth grade and haven’t stopped since. For seven years, they have learned one another’s basketball pattern.
Mosteller and Sanford are the ball handlers. Horn’s 3-point stroke trumps all others on the roster. Swilling can score in transition and piles up hustle points. And Vess is the towering post player who, when at his best, can’t be stopped.
“Since we could dribble a basketball,” Horn said. “We became a team, all of us together, in sixth grade. But in rec leagues, we all were on each other’s team (in some combination), one way or another.”
The group was on the team last year — Swilling and Vess started, with the latter making The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Boys Basketball Team — when the Mountaineers won 21 games and reached the state tournament for the first time, losing 68-50 at Jefferson in the first round of the Class 2A bracket. It was just the program’s second season of varsity competition and included the first senior class — Cody Malone, Gavin Ledford, Jeremy Smith and Tyler Duckett.
This year, the new senior class became the program’s hub. And they brought new landmarks — the most wins in a season (22), first home state tournament game and first state tournament win — along with the responsibility of shouldering a young program’s deepest run yet.
“They are very comfortable with each other,” Ellis said. “They know each other’s mannerisms, each other’s tendencies. They know where each other is at.
“They trust each other. That makes it easier.”