Liberty was poised for a trip to the state tournament and nearly had one last season.
The perennial powers thought otherwise.
After leading late against Chapmanville in the sectional championship the Raiders fell short and ultimately lost in the regional co-final the next week at Bluefield.
Now they’ll look to fill two holes left by departing seniors.
“Trey Tabor was the only other kid that we lost,” Liberty coach Chad Williams said. “We’re only two down. They were two starters, granted, but we’re pretty lucky to have then other three back.”
The other kid was starting point guard Braden Howell, a lockdown defender that Williams acknowledges they’re still trying to replace.
“Making up for Braden Howell’s defense is something we’re trying to do,” Williams said. “That’s the biggest struggle, filling his shoes on the defensive end. We don’t have that shutdown guy we can put on the other guys’ best player like we had with him. we’re trying to figure out who’s going to step up and take that role. We still don’t have a shutdown defender.”
What they do have is a good group of returning players, led by all-state forward A.J. Williams.
“I mean we’ve got a good core group,” Williams said. “I’ve coached these guys since they were in middle school. Those three starters that we’ve got returning, there’s big expectations for them. And everybody knows A.J. and what he’s capable of. I think this is probably the most offensive weapons we’ve had since I’ve been there. We’ve got a lot more shooters around A.J. which helps take the pressure off of him. And then Adam Drennen, I think you’ll see some big things out of him. I think this will be his breakout year and he’ll top his scoring averages from the last few years by far.
“Adam McGhee is another one. We’ve got Zack Bowman and he’ll be a junior this year. We’ve got Ethan Williams who will be our starring point guard. He’s a sophomore this year.”
The status of A.J. Williams is currently up in the air as the senior suffered a knee injury in a scrimmage last week
Still, Coach Williams has reason for optimism. The kids currently at his disposal have developed into a smart bunch.
“Mostly the IQ level,” Williams said when asked about the strength of his team. “Most of these guys have been in the program now for several years. We’re not starting from scratch like a lot of years in the past. We’re building from last year, so we’re further along two weeks in than what we have been. Really the biggest thing is we have more kids willing to score the basketball and not expect A.J. to do so much.”
Also working in the Raiders’ favor is their depth.
“We’re going to be deeper this year than we’ve been in year’s past,” Williams said. “Usually we have to go six or seven deep if we’re lucky. This year I think we’ll probably go eight or nine deep on the bench. We can definitely push the tempo a lot more and not have to worry about legs at the end of a game.”
While unsuccessful in achieving their goal last season, it remains the same – earn a state tournament berth.
“Our goal is the same every year – to make it to Charleston,” Williams said. “That’s everybody’s goal. This year, we just wants to be more of a balanced team and be a deeper team. Unfortunately that’s probably what beat us at both Chapmanville and Bluefield last year – the depth of their bench against our bench. We were winning both games until the fourth quarter. We just couldn’t sustain the fourth quarter with the depth and fresh legs the other teams had. Our goal is going to be to have a more balanced offense and play more guys. We want to be a deeper ball on both side of the ball. We want to have guys that can go in and give starters breaks but not lose a lot when we do that.”