SHENANDOAH JUNCTION – The Jefferson boys basketball program certainly didn’t finish its season the way the Cougars would have liked.
But despite closing out the season with an 86-45 loss March 6 at undefeated and top-ranked Washington in the sectional semifinals, Jefferson improved immensely from a year ago and enters the offseason with realistic expectations for making a credible postseason run next winter.
Freshman point guard Jahlil Jenkins and junior guard Jalen Smith were instrumental in leading Jeffers
on to a 12-11 mark this year, tripling the number of victories from a season ago and capping its campaign with a first-round postseason upset victory at Musselman.
Jenkins and Smith will have at least a year of eligibility remaining, as will fellow starters and key role players in junior forward Andrew King, junior guard Michael Tennant, sophomore forward Delonte Berry and sophomore forward Christian Johnson. The Cougars are slated to graduate just two seniors from this year’s team.
“If everybody keeps their heads straight and works hard this summer we have a really good chance of being one of the top teams in the area, and hopefully making a run at being in the top 10 of the state next year,” said Jefferson coach Richard Lewis.
Just a year removed from the middle school ranks, Jenkins finished a stellar season averaging a team-best 17 points per game, including a season-high 28 points on Jan. 31 during a conference victory against Spring Mills. Jenkins, a scrappy defensive standout and high-energy offensive threat from both outside and in the paint, also led Jefferson this season with 80 assists and 75 steals.
“Hands down, he’s the best freshman in the area,” said Washington coach Don Bullett. “He can do a lot of things. He reminds me of (Washington’s) Dominique (Newman) and Maleke (Jones) and those types of players, even though they’re upperclassmen and he’s a freshman. He’s doing some of those things now. I like his intensity.”
Smith, an honorable mention all-state selection last year despite missing the last eight games of the season with an injured knee, returned to the lineup this winter and scored an average of 16.9 points per game. Smith posted a season-best 29 points in the Cougars’ 66-65 victory Jan. 20 against Eastern, while also scoring 20 or more points in seven other games, including 22 points against Musselman on March 5 during Jefferson’s 72-65 first-round playoff win.
“If we continue to mature and propel from the Musselman game and not really think about what happened tonight (March 6 at Washington), then we definitely have a real good chance of making some noise next year,” Lewis said. “Last night against Musselman you kind of saw that.”
Along with the play of Jenkins and Smith, Lewis credited the program’s turnaround this year to the additions of King and Berry, who didn’t play basketball last season, and also seniors Mario Gonzalez and Cornell Holt and others gaining valuable varsity experience a year ago and contributing this season.
“Those additions helped us a lot,” Lewis said. “All those guys coming out, we had an opportunity to turn things around. And pretty much, I think we did. I think we accomplished that.”
Jefferson’s potential ascension to the top of the heap of the area hierarchy also appears to be happening when some of their conference rivals are destined to lose their best performers.
County-rival Washington, which is in the midst of trying to win a state Class AAA championship later this month in Charleston, will lose starters Dominique Newman, Kendell Smith, Maleke Jones, Jerome Jones and Josh Dudley to graduation this spring.
Fellow conference foes Musselman and Hedgesville, the sectional runner-up, also stand to graduate key starters from their programs, helping pave the way for a young Jefferson program that struggled to a 2-8 regular season conference record, after repeatedly facing top 10 programs in Washington, Hedgesville and Martinsburg.
“Jefferson’s going to be a good basketball team next year,” Bullett said. “They’re young, so they’re rebuilding and I think they’re going to be a team that you’re going to have to deal with in the future. That’s for sure.
“Those guards (Jenkins and Smith) … they’re two fine players,” Bullet added. “You’ve got to defend them. They can shoot and they can take it off the dribble. That’s the nucleus of their team.”