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Thursday July 30th, 2015 8:08AM

8-AAAA leading Knights set for huge showdown with surging War Eagles

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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OAKWOOD -- The Johnson boys basketball team is finding itself in unfamiliar territory these days.

"We're the hunted right now," Knights coach Jeff Steele said. "It's not a role we're used to being in.

"I like it."

Indeed, what's not to like about winning? And Johnson has been doing plenty of that this season, posting an 18-4 record and a perfect 5-0 mark in Region 8-AAAA. In fact, the Knights feel they have a great shot at notching the program's first trip to the state tournament since 2010 -- you just won't hear them talking about it.

"We're just taking it one game at a time right now," Knights guard Ty Cockfield said. "We're not going to get caught up looking ahead."

It's a stance that's both sensible and a little surprising for a team that features just one senior, but with the slate of games facing the Knights down the stretch, Steele says it is a necessity.

"We're trying to stay humble and hungry," Steele said. "We've exceeded expectations so far, but we can't be satisfied with what we've done. We've got some big goals, and the games we've got coming up are going to be as tough as we've had all year."

Johnson will take on three more regular season opponents and two of the three -- Chestatee and Eastside -- promise a postseason-like atmosphere.

"Chestatee is a good shooting team, and they can get hot and burn you," Cockfield said.

"I think the Eastside game is going to be huge, not just because they're a good team, but also because our game with them was postponed, so we've been waiting for it," Johnson point guard Drew Dunham said.

The War Eagles represent Johnson's only local rivalry in Region 8-AAAA, and Chestatee enters Friday's showdown at Johnson on the back of an 8-1 record over its past nine games -- including a razor-thin 71-69 loss to Eastside. (NOTE: The game will be broadcast live on WDUN AM 550/102.9 FM)

"That game worries me," Steele said of the Chestatee showdown. "Yeah we beat them earlier in the year (96-83 on Dec. 7), but that was a while ago. They've gotten better, and they pushed us most of the way in that game."

Featuring deadly shooters such as Keelan Passmore and Jordan Degraff -- who hit nine 3-pointers in Tuesday's 87-81 defeat of Stephens County -- the War Eagles have played their way into contention for a high seed in the upcoming region tournament, which will be held at Johnson.

Yet the Knights will counter with a strong outside presence of their own -- not to mention perhaps the top inside force in northeast Georgia.

The lone Johnson senior, Montrell McKenzie leads the team in scoring at 16.3 points per game, as well as averaging 14 rebounds per game. In fact McKenzie has missed out on posting double digit scoring and rebounds in just one game this season.

"He's not real vocal, but he leads by how he plays -- I love that kind of player," Steele said of McKenzie. "And I've seen a real sense of urgency out of him since we began playing the region schedule."

The towering 6-foot-6 center has the ability to dominate the paint, posting 58 blocks this season.

"Even if he doesn't block a shot, he alters most of them, and he keeps people thinking about him in there," Steele said.

It's a part of the game the senior relishes.

"I love playing defense," McKenzie said. "This season's been a lot of fun. And if we all play defense and rebound, we win games."

That attitude has helped Johnson continue to prosper despite some hot and cold offensive outputs over the past few contests.

"We're still not playing as good as we can play," Steele said. "We shot 10 percent from 3-point range in our last several games before we had a little breakout on Tuesday (going 5-for-9 from beyond the 3-point arc in a 79-54 win over Monroe Area). But we still won all those games, so that's a good sign."

Beyond McKenzie, the Knights feature a strong starting five that includes the slashing Cockfield (15.6 points per game), oustide shooters Carter Cagle (10.3 ppg, 44 made 3-pointers) and Roderick English (11 ppg, 27 made 3-pointers) and Dunham (7.8 ppg, 5.9 assists per game). James Hodges (8.2 ppg) also features off the bench.

"Unlike most high school teams, you have to guard all of our players, because they can all score," Steele said. "They're good kids. They're hungry to win. And they all kind of fell into their roles, and everything has worked out nicely."

Steele attributes much of that success to time the team spent working together in the preseason with the Elite Hoops group.

"They went and worked with three different coaches, two nights a week for seven weeks, and that made a huge difference," Steele said. "That's why a team this young can play so well so early."

And now that the season is winding down, members of the team admit that time served to help build a successful foundation.

"That was big," Dunham added. "We didn't have Ty (who transferred in at the start of the school year) in the summer, so that was like his summer with us, and we all got to know each other. We worked on fundamentals and got in shape."

For the next few days, however, all the Knights want to think about is what is to come, and what they must do to make all that hard work pay off in the biggest of ways.

"Getting back to state would be huge, but we have to focus on region first," McKenzie said.

So far that hasn't been much of an issue.
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