Friday February 12th, 2016 4:54AM

Steele, Knights have sights set on first Lanierland title since '88

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
OAKWOOD -- Now in his 14th season at Johnson, there is little coach Jeff Steele hasn't accomplished, short of winning a state title.

Well, that and a Lanierland title.

The latter could be about to change as the Knights (9-1) come into Friday's 2012 Lanierland semifinals against West Hall at North Hall High with the best record in Hall County. And Steele said if any group of his can do what hasn't been done since 1988, this is the one.

The last time Johnson won Lanierland was in 1988 with legendary coach Ken Martin. The Knights last played for the title in 2008, losing to cross-town rival West Hall, and in 2005 they lost to eventual state champion East Hall and Walter Hill.

The 2005 team also won Region 7-AAA and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs.

"I really feel we have the best overall personnel here since the 2005 team," he said. "We could use some more depth but just about every combination we put on the court we have five guys that can score and play defense. This is probably our best chance (to win a title) since 2008."

And, the Knights have gotten off to their best start in Steele's 14 seasons in the midst of a youth movement with just one senior and a slew of underclassmen.

Steele said the key to their early-season success may stem from taking part in the seven-week Nike Elite training program right before the start of the season.

"We worked on fundamentals, defense, everything," he said. "It's the first time we've done that and I think it's made a huge difference. I don't think there's any coincidence in our having our best start and doing the Elite. We'll do it every year from now on."

But, Steele said they will go only as far as their rebounding and defense take them. Their only blemish to this point was an overtime loss to Jefferson , where they blew a big second half lead.

"We saw that in the Jefferson game," he said. "We got up big, stopped playing defense, and they started fouling us and we missed free throws. It just kind of snowballed on us. But they saw how easy it is to get beat and I think they've gotten more focused."

Only three lettermen returned from last year's squad. Montrell McKensey is the only upperclassman but has led by example with a double-double (17.8 points, 14.9 rebounds) in every game so far. Junior point guard Drew Dunham (8.0 points, 7.1 asst, 2.6 steals) has been the catalyst so far as the eyes on the court for Steele. Junior Carter Cagle (11.5 points, team-high 20 3-pointers) can hit 3-pointers as well as play in the post.

"Montrell is having a great season so far and I knew he would," Steele said. "Carter gives us some firepower. But Drew has really picked up his game. Right now he is one of the best, if not the best, point guard I've had in my time here. He sees things out there like I do and doesn't make too many mistakes. We are a different team with him out there."

Dunham, who has a 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, said he just does whatever is needed to get a win.

"I try to get everybody involved as quick as I can," he said. "That's my job. What I like about our team is that no one cares who does what. We just want to win. It's a great group."

McKensey, who went through a couple years of growing pains with the Knights, said the attitude this year has been a major factor to their success.

"We share the ball and just do what we have to do to win," McKensey said. "The attitude on the whole team is really good. It's a lot of fun to play with these guys."

Sophomore Ty Cockfield, however, is the leading scorer at 18.3 points a game with a slashing style on offense. Rod English (12 ppg) is a 3-point sharp-shooter at forward.

Both McKensey and Dunham said the season is just now getting interesting and they have a goal in mind.

"We want to win Lanierland. That's the first thing on our list," McKensey said. "But I also think we can make the playoffs and win some games. Hopefully we can make that happen."

"We haven't played our best game yet," Dunham said. "Lanierland is something we talked about winning so hopefully we can do that (this weekend). I think we have a great chance this year."
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