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Jackets hope the wait can be worth it

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Denison's Keleon Vaughn and the Yellow Jackets will try to make the playoffs following a one-year absence.

The Yellow Jackets were unable to build on the progress of ending a nearly decade-long playoff drought. It was a breakthrough in many ways and Denison looked to be in good shape heading into district play with a winning record.

Over the final months of the season, however, the Jackets took a step back and weren’t a factor in the postseason race.

Now Denison is hoping to head back up the standings with a large core of the roster returning after getting their first taste of varsity experience as sophomores. It might end up being awhile before they all get a chance to be on the court together thanks to the overlap with the football season as Denison will open the season by hosting Celina at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

“Is it an idea situation? No. We’ll see what happens,” Yellow Jacket head coach Dale Rhodes said. “2020 has been quite a year. We’re still a fairly small 5A school that has to share athletes.”

Nearly all of the projected roster is still on the gridiron after the UIL staggered the start of the Class 5A and 6A football schedules that extended the regular season into December. There is a chance the Jackets could started district basketball games while football is still in the playoffs as Christmas approaches.

In the meantime, Denison will play a handful of contests and give experience to those who might end up making contributions not just this year, but down the line. Improvement is always the key for a program that won more games last season than when it made the playoffs the prior season but still ended 12-19 overall — which was the most wins since 2011 — and went just 1-9 in District 10-5A, earning a frustrating win because it came against second-place McKinney North but then Denison lost every other match-up.

“They know what to do. They what to expect,” Rhodes said. “We’re athletic as all get out. We expect to be able to be in the mix.”

Finding a way to replace a large chunk of their offensive production is the top priority. The Jackets lost a pair of all-district selections to graduation in first-teamer Tarrence Gaines, who led Denison in scoring for his final two seasons, and guard Nate Uber, who was chosen second-team all-district, as well as guard Zaelin Wimbish.

“You can’t replace Tarrence with just one guy,” Rhodes said. “When things got hard, Tarrence would get us a bucket and now that’s he’s gone, guys are going to have to step up. I think we have guys who can do that.”

Leading the returners on the roster is senior guard Keleon Vaughn, who was named second-team all-district. The only other senior slated to return to the roster is Asa Osbourn.

Juniors Trey Rhodes, Jadarian Price and Caleb Heavner were all honorable mention all-district picks as part of the large group of 10th-graders on last year’s roster. The other juniors who are back include Ross Hall, Landry Massenburg, Jalik Lewis, Jakalen Fields and Dameon Smallwood.

“This group of kids, they genuinely like each other,” Rhodes said. “They’re so unselfish and sometimes that’s a bad thing. Sometimes it’s okay to be selfish. You’ll have an opportunity to make a play and you need to make it.”

All of those mentioned above but Hall are football players and most of the potential newcomers are as well: juniors De’Teaurean Johnson and Jaren Hendricks, who transferred from Durant, and senior Corey Whitburn, who transferred from Ector.

Senior James Nelson, who transferred from Sherman, is part of the group that will open the season next week.

“Now when the (football) regular season is over, I may be able to bring over the freshmen and junior varsity guys,” Rhodes said. “We’ll handle it the best we can. That’s all we can do.”

Because teams cannot compete in tournaments as part of the UIL’s COVID-19 changes for this season, the Jackets will play non-district contests against Anna, Carrollton Creekview, McKinney Christian, Denton and Greenville before starting 10-5A play on Dec. 22.

Denison was placed in a district with Sherman, Wylie East, McKinney North, Lovejoy, Princeton, The Colony and Prosper Rock Hill for the next two seasons.

Non-district

What: Celina at Denison

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday