The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Sports

December 3, 2013

Kings 'most excited' for the new season

CLINTON — Although the River Kings will make their home debut tonight when they host Cedar Rapids Jefferson, the hype behind this 2013-14 season is already in full swing.

Three weeks ago, with senior wing-man Jalen Jones signing his letter of intent to play NCAA Division-I basketball for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, neither he nor head coach Nick Lawrence could suppress their excitement for what the River Kings plan to dole out this winter. For Jones — who is on the verge of becoming the first 1,000 point scorer in school history — that culminates in a run at the state basketball tournament in March.

“We’re hoping to have a really great season,” he said on Nov. 14, moments after committing to college. “We’re going to try our best to make it to state. It’s my last year and we want to end on a good note.”

Said Lawrence: “I think the sky’s the limit for us. This is the most excited we’ve been coming into the season for a long time.”

After averaging 19.0 points per game last year, Jones is the leading scorer returning in the Mississippi Athletic Conference by a considerable margin. He’ll be joined by 6-foot, 8-inch junior Brady Ernst, who led the MAC in rebounds with 9.9 per game and averaged 11 points a game. Factor in Clinton’s third and fourth top scorers from a season ago — Derrick Howard with 7.9 and Jon Cady with 4.5 — and it’s easy to see why the River Kings are aiming for more than topping last year’s 7-15 record.

“We’ve got a lot of solid players to really build around,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got a lot of solid role players, and that builds excitement for our program.”

Despite Jones’ height and range (he’s 6-foot-7 with the versatility to guard all five positions on defense), Lawrence slated him as the team’s point guard last winter. While Clinton benefited at times from allowing Jones to create off the dribble, he said younger ball-handlers have come into the fold, allowing Jones to move into comfort zone on offense.

“This year we’ll be able to slide him back to his more natural wing position,” Lawrence said. “We’ve had some kids develop which allows us to slide him back.”

Following Jones’ signing day, Lawrence added Jones has emerged as Clinton’s leader during practices. He said a “transition” took place once the senior realized he was going to play D-I basketball, a verbal commitment Jones made after the team’s summer league play.

“Shortly after we got done playing, Jalen texted me and said ‘Hey, I’ve decided I’m going to commit to Nebraska Omaha,’ “ Lawrence said. “And from that point on, everything from the way he carried himself, his whole demeanor changed as though a weight has been lifted.”

Removing that pressure clears way for the team’s objective, Jones said.

“I can focus solely on the basketball season, nothing else,” he said, adding the River Kings have logged a lot of minutes as a group in the off season to improve.

Up first is the J-Hawks, who also return their top scorer in point guard Jacob Olson. Like the Kings, Jefferson returns with experience — nine seniors of 13 players on the roster.

To Lawrence, though, success for Clinton will depend more on what the River Kings do internally.

“Right now the biggest challenge for us is how much we’re going to commit to coming together as a team,” he said. “Anybody will tell you the trademark of really good teams is how well they bond and are unified towards the same goal.”

According to Jones, that chemistry has also been set in motion.

“We’re very prepared,” he said. “We just want to get out and run as fast as we can and keep pushing the ball to score a lot of points.”

Tip-off is slated for 7:30 p.m. at the W.J. Yourd Gym. It’s the start of a five-game home stretch for Clinton, which also hosts the River King Classic (Friday and Saturday), Dubuque Senior (Dec. 10) and North Scott (Dec. 13) over the first two weeks of the season.

Starting at home, Lawrence said the River Kings are sure to take in that long-built hype from the get-go.

“The excitement from our guys and the community heading into this season has really been a huge boost,” he said.

 

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