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Summer travel teams have long helped to develop the skills of several of this area’s premiere talent. One AAU team in particular, the North Mississippi Wildcats, featured three standouts who helped the team to a sixth place finish nationally in the AAU Junior Boys Division II National Championships in Orlando, Florida.
Zach Carnell of Ingomar and Hickory Flat’s Zavion Adams and Caleb VanTassell helped make up the Wildcats’ squad, and have played for head coach Michael Seger for five years. Now entering their senior year, each had specific aspects of their game they wanted to improve heading into their final year of high school.
“I worked on three-point shooting a lot, and I think it’s improved,” Carnell said. “I don’t know if Coach (Norris) Ashley will let me shoot it or not, but I shot it a lot in AAU, and I also think my free throws and mid-range shots have gone up a lot.”
I needed to work on going to the basket with control, as well as push the ball under control,” Adams added about his weakness.
In pool play at the national championships, the Wildcats opened with a 65-55 loss at the hands of RBS 17 out of Illinois. After that loss, the team rolled out four straight wins, the first two giving them a #2 seed in bracket play.
The first round of bracket play showcased VanTassell scoring 10 points against a front court of 6’6, 6’7 and 6’8 for the Connecticut Gold, showing that the Rebel has improved in becoming more of a force as a small post player.
“I have rebounding down packed, but for me, since I’m such a small post player, I worked on my dribbling and shooting the most this summer,” VanTassell said.
In the second round of bracket play, the Wildcats exploded for a 63-48 win over the PT Cruisers of South Carolina. Carnell posted a double-double, scoring 20 points with 16 rebounds, while Adams held one of the top scorers, D’Andre Draper scoreless in the second half, helping North Miss. in the win.
The Wildcats fell in the third round to the Minutemen White from New York, 63-51, and faced elimination in their next two games. Picking up three more wins, versus the GT Stars (Atlanta), the Louisiana Roundballers and the Houston Flight (TX), the Wildcats took home an overall sixth place finish in the tournament.
“It was a fitting end for this group of guys - going out with a win,” Seger said. “This team was formed when these guys were in the 7th grade. There has been a lot of sweat, time, and love put into this team, and it’s hard to get a group of guys who all are the star at their schools to come in and accept a lesser role for the success of the team. Once these guys finally bought into the concept of loving their teammates enough to sacrifice their bodies and their minutes by giving their best effort on every play, our team really started to improve.”
“Honestly going down there, I didn’t know how we would do because it was a national tournament, but we turned our game up,” Carnell added. “We played better than some of our previous tournaments. We lost our first game, but it was like after that we just clicked and started winning.”
Some of the area’s best talent help make-up this team, and Seger knows these three have contributed a lot in their five years with the Wildcats.
“Zach & Caleb are two of the top post players in Northeast Miss.,” Seger said. “These guys split the majority of the minutes of each game, with neither guy playing more than 15 minutes per game. In limited minutes at the Nationals, Zach averaged 8 points and 7 rebounds per game. Caleb averaged 6 points and 5 rebounds per game. This was especially impressive in a guard dominated offensive system.”
“Zavion is probably the guy I’m the hardest on,” Seger added. “I can’t think of anybody in North Miss. I’d swap him for. Even though he was more than deserving of a starting role, he really bought into his role as 6th man. He was the defensive stopper on our team, as he often drew the assignment of defending the opponents top scorer. His best basketball days are ahead of him.”
There are many connections within this team as well, as Seger is a 2003 graduate of Ingomar and cousin of Carnell, while VanTassell and Adams had the opportunity to work throughout the summer with their high school coach, Michael Thompson.
“He’s a real good coach, and I remember when he played at Ingomar and I would watch him play when I was little,” Carnell said of his cousin. “He’s helped me a lot to be who I am now, and if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be half the basketball player I am now. He’s a really good example to me.”
“It was good to have Coach Thompson with us, because he was able to watch how I played, and we worked together throughout the games,” Adams said.
VanTassell echoed this response, as he feels the Rebels will benefit from the three working together throughout the summer.
“It’s a lot easier since we get to play during the summer together, so we get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and what we need to do to help with our high school team,” VanTassell said.
In the end, all three share a goal of taking what they have learned playing AAU this summer and applying that to their high school teams, as they will all make a push for a championship in 2009-2010 season.