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North Johnston basketball prepping for challenging EPC slate

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KENLY — The North Johnston girls basketball team won’t have the deepest roster in 2-A hoops.

With just eight players on the team, the Panthers will live and die by how they can work together to replace the production lost after last season.

After a 14-11 run that took the team to North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs a season ago, North Johnston graduated its leading scorer, Jordyn Scott, along with contributor Lindsey Massengill and two other seniors.

Those players weren’t necessarily replaced with many new faces, meaning players who are returning will take on bigger roles to fill the gap.

“A lot of players are going to have to step up,” head coach Jay Poole said. “Those with a year of experience are going to have to grow into it.”

Poole will rely on guard/forward Mackenzie Gibson, the lone senior on the team — who missed part of last season with a knee injury — to step up and be the “glue” for his program.

Joining her and adding some height to the lineup will be sophomore Nakiya Blue and junior Imoni Hines, the team’s main post players and rebounders.

Junior guard Arial Pearce will also be back as a reliable shooter who can drive to the hoop just as consistently.

The cast of characters will need to embrace bigger roles for the team to fare well in what is expected to be a tough 2-A Eastern Plains Conference.

“It’s going to be a challenge every night. It’s a very solid conference, very well-coached,” Poole said. “Three of the last state champions or runner-ups have come from the Eastern Plains Conference, so there are no off nights, no off nights. We’re going to have to be prepared and ready every night.”

NJ boys return with an eye on playoffs

The expectations for the North Johnston boys basketball team begin when the program considers the challenging 2-A Eastern Plains Conference slate that lies ahead.

Running with a roster loaded with seniors, the Panthers have yet to rise the conference rankings for several years, where programs like Farmville Central have dominated. A core of veterans return with their eye toward changing that — and making the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17.

“Expectations-wise, they’ve finished in the bottom two or three in the conference every year,” head coach Chris Batten said. “The goal is to get ourselves out of there, back up into the upper-half part of the conference and back into the playoffs.”

To get there, the Panthers will look to four players for crucial contributions — senior Justin Vann, junior Dominic Tinsley, senior Dylan Pitts and senior Carsse Lucas.

Vann returns as a guard who can create his own shot, while Tinsley will be taking on a bigger role after spending the second half of last season on varsity. The importance of Pitts and Lucas lies in their ability to know their roles and play them consistently night after night.

“We’ve had a little bit of chemistry issues the last few years, in getting kids to buy in together on what exactly everybody’s roles are,” Batten said. “I don’t see that being a problem this year.”

Batten called the challenge of EPC play a “dog fight,” which will begin Jan. 10 against the Jaguars. Before the team gets there, it will use nonconference play as a means to prepare for a tough road ahead, starting with the season-opener against Newton Grove Hobbton on Nov. 19.