He may have gone from being loud and brash to performing like a quiet workhorse, but Zach Vess hasn’t lost any confidence when he’s wearing his black-and-yellow North Murray basketball jersey.
Vess still expects himself to be the best player on the court.
The Mountaineers standout center has his sights set on making his final high school season a special one. Under a new coach and as the returning leading scorer, Vess has taken the role of leader on and off the court, and he sees a chance for his senior class to showcase years of experience playing together with another appearance in the state tournament.
“I believe I have the responsibility, for sure,” Vess said. “Me and my seniors have been playing together since middle school, so I think they’ll step up.”
Last season, Vess and then-senior Tyler Duckett led North Murray to its first appearance in the state tournament. However, a 68-50 loss at Jeff-erson in the first round of the Class 2A bracket — the Mountaineers were a No. 3 seed — and a second half worth forgetting means a sour taste might still be in the mouths of North Murray’s returning players.
“If it is, then they’ve talked about that amongst themselves,” new head coach Tim Ellis said. “I’m not one to really bring up anything from the past.
“I know that they as a team have a lot of lofty goals. I like that.”
North Murray, which went 21-10 overall and 13-3 in Sub-region 7B-2A play last season, has started this year 5-1, including back-to-back victories in the past week to open its Region 5-3A schedule. Outside of league play, the Mountaineers can point to a pair of quality wins against Gordon Lee and Gilmer plus a last-second 69-67 loss to Class 6A’s Meadowcreek at the Southeast Thanksgiving Hoopfest as signs of early success.
As for Vess, he’s averaging 19.6 points and 13.1 rebounds per game this year despite facing double teams. He scored 29 points and grabbed 16 boards in a blowout win Tuesday against Adairsville.
“He’s seeing a lot of double teams before he ever catches the ball,” Ellis said. “He’s a well-known commodity in our area. ... That’s the way it’s going to be. In my opinion, that just means he’s that much more of a dominant kid because people are trying everything to take him away and he’s still being productive.”
While he won’t call this squad better or destined for greater things, Vess, a team captain, sees a change for the better.
Ellis replaces Eric Bishop, who left to take a job with Whitfield County Schools and is not coaching basketball this season, although he will assist Coahulla Creek’s track and field program in the spring.
“No offense to Bishop, but it’s a big difference. We like it a lot,” Vess said. “We’re getting more out of our practices. ... It’s more disciplined and there’s no messing around. It’s straight to business.”
It’s different for Vess, too. He played this summer with the Georgia Stars travel team and his eyes opened while competing against premier talent.
“I used to be a loud player until I played travel ball in the summer,” he said. “Playing with 6-10 and 6-11 guys made me realize you can’t dominate.”
Despite attempting baseball and soccer — and football as recently as this fall — Vess always found his niche on the basketball court.
“I was in three games and it wasn’t for me,” he said of his football experience. “I just wanted to try. Some people can’t say ‘What if?’ so I got it over with.”
As a 5-foot-5-inch middle schooler, his father continued to push him to the sport. Now 6-5, after averaging 17.7 points and 14.4 rebounds per game as a junior, he already has a full scholarship offer to Limestone University in Gaffney, S.C.
“My dad has always believed in me. I was small when I was in middle school. My dad always kept me in and gave me a spark,” said Vess, who received the scholarship offer to the Division II school after a formal visit but is keeping his options open before signing.
“I’m really interested in them,” he said.
A two-time selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Basketball Team, Vess hasn’t quite reached the highest local honor for area hoopsters. Dalton’s Tristen Harrell was named All-Area Player of the year last season and Murray County’s Taylor Patterson garnered the honor in 2010-2011, Vess’ first season as a full-year starter and the Mountaineers’ first of varsity play.
“It drives me,” said Vess, who earned a starting spot midway into his freshman season, when North Murray started out with a JV schedule. “Last year I didn’t mind Tristen winning because we have a good relationship and we’re friends. ... I’m going to want it, but I’m more focused on the team.”
Said Ellis, “I’m sure that’s in his head. From my standpoint, my focus is our team. Any individual goals someone achieves is through our team.”
As a two-time all-area selection, he is a likely front-runner for the big award. As the returning leading scorer on a playoff team, he carries an abundance of expectations. And he doesn’t shy away from his desire to maintain his status as the top player among the 10 guys on the floor.
“I try to stay humble,” Vess said, “but I tell myself I am.”
Said Ellis, “He doesn’t lack confidence. It’s not a cockiness. He’s just confident in what he does and who he is.”
And the coach doesn’t lack confidence in him, either.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Ellis said, “he’s probably the most dominant player in the area.”