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NAUGATUCK — Despite losing five of their top six scorers from a season ago to graduation the Tug Valley Panthers and longtime head coach Garland “Rabbit” Thompson still have the same goal in place at seasons end; qualify for the Class A State Tournament at the Charleston Civic Center.

Thompson guided the Panthers to a 14-3 record and their 15th State Tournament appearance overall but they ended the season one game shy of their fifth appearance in a state championship game.

“Last year we had a state semifinal team but we graduated and lost a lot of kids, really the only kid we’ve got coming back is Ethan Colegrove” coach Thompson said. “So we’re starting over. It’s kind of like building blocks, we will try to establish who we are and what we are. Practice has been good so far and the kids have bought into what we are telling them. I’m excited to get started and hopefully we can make another return trip back to Charleston.”

Colegrove, a 6’4” post player that can play inside and out, was the team’s second leading scorer in 2021 with an average of 14 points per game while also grabbing down a team best nine rebounds per contest. He shot 50 percent from the field last season, including 41 percent from three

“We’re really going to rely on Ethan for a lot this year, especially leadership,” Thompson said. “He’s started for me now for four years. I’ve seen him change both physically and mentally over the years. When he first came up for us he was a little pudgy and was just a mean ol’ boy. But now he’s matured and really grown up, he’s developed his body and lost some weight. Now he is one of the cornerstones that we are going to count on for leadership, scoring, rebounding, and coaching these young kids out on the floor.”

While Colegrove is the only returning player that saw floor time on last season’s Tug Valley squad he is not the only experienced player the Panthers will have on the roster as they received a transfer from junior Parker Davis who came over from Martin County.

Davis, who is the younger brother of former TVHS standout Levi Davis, started in 19 games as a sophomore for the Cardinals and averaged 8 points and four rebounds per game.

“He’s a beast I’m telling you, he’s been everything that I have hoped for,” Thompson said of the 6’3” slasher. “He’s a big strong kid and can get to the basket anytime he wants. He’s strong and physical. I’m glad he’s here. He is another cornerstone, he is going to be one of the three cornerstones that we have to have.”

The third cornerstone on this year’s Tug Valley squad according to coach Thompson will be new to high school basketball, in the form of Lenore standout guard Joey Gollihue.

Gollihue has received high praise from those surrounding the program at TVHS since he led the Rangers to an undefeated Mingo County Championship as an 8th grader.

“He’s probably the best freshman that I have ever coached, and I’ve coached some good ones,” Thompson said. “G Gregory at Williamson was very good, Austin Vance and Jeremy Dillon down here were both great. But Joey has the complete package. He’s got all three shots. He finishes well at the rim, he’s got a nice little floater, and can step out and hit some 3s. He jumps well and even handles the ball well. Of all our kids his ceiling is the highest. He could end up playing Division 1.”

Another freshman from Lenore, 6’2” Ashton Davis, is expected to step into a key role this season while Junior Jonathan Wagoner, who saw action sparingly off of the bench last season, and will see plenty more minutes this season according to coach Thompson.

Others competing for minutes this season will be senior Brennan Pack, juniors Paul Preece, sophomore forward Buddy Marcum, and freshmen Kaden Hale and Brady Brewer.

“What I would like to do is give these kids a chance to play and see what they’ve got,” Thompson said. “I’ve been known to sub and change lineups for years. Two years ago I started 17 different lineups and last season I rotated Joby Sorrell and Justin Hall half the season. I’m going to do that again this year. I’m going to try to give Kaden a start, I hope to get Brady a start, and I hope to get Jonathan and even Buddy a start or two. Kids need valuable minutes, they don’t need the last two minutes of the game when you are getting beat or way ahead and you put them in. They need those valuable minutes during the course of the game to give them experience.”

The Panthers are well known to traditionally play one of the toughest schedules in all of Class A and this year is no different.

The 22 game slate features home and homes with rivals Tolsia and Mingo Central, Boone County foes Sherman and Van, along with defending Class A State Champion Man and Class AA Westside and Huntington St. Joe.

Tug Valley will also play single games against Class AAA Robert C. Byrd, Class AA Williamstown, and Class A power Greater Beckley Christian.

TVHS will play six games in tournament settings during the regular season including two games in the aforementioned Westside Shootout, two games in the annual Hatfield McCoy Shootout at the historic Williamson Fieldhouse, and single games in the Chapmanville Country Roads Showcase and the Par Mar Little General Shootout at West Virginia State.

“It’s going to be a challenge. I know people want us to win every game but realistically with a new team going against the schedule we have, we may drop a few games. But I expect us to be right in the mix of things in our sectional come February and March.”

The Panthers will open the season on the road in the Westside Shootout on Dec. 10 and Dec. 11 and will play their first home game in Naugatuck on Dec. 14 against St. Joe.

Thompson, who has led Tug Valley to seven state tournament appearances, back-to-back state titles in 2012 and 2013, and has a career record of 178-66 will once again be assisted by Tyler Hodge, Ronnie Blankenship, David Ledger, Dr. Jerry Mounts, and former Williamson head coach Curt Fletcher.

HD Media reporter Jarrid McCormick covers sports in Mingo County.

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