Seth Merritt admitted he and his team will probably be a little intimidated tonight.
Merritt, a senior forward, and the Union County Panthers will host the East Hall Vikings at 7:30 tonight in Blairsville in a pivotal subregion 8A-AA showdown.
“I think when they walk in the door, we’ll be in awe for awhile,” said Merritt, who leads the Panthers with 14 points per game. “It may take a couple of minutes to get used to playing them, because when you think of East Hall, you think of one of the best teams in the area. Anyone who wants to build a program wants to be like East Hall.
“For us to have a great game with them is all I can ask. We’ll be intimidated, but we’ll try to hold our own.”
The No. 8 Panthers (15-0, 3-0 8A-AA), and the No. 7 Vikings (12-5, 3-0) will play for a chance to be in the driver’s seat of the subregion.
While it might seem odd for undefeated Union County to feel intimidated to play the Vikings, the notion isn’t too far-fetched when considering the Panthers won just four games last year, going 0-9 in region play. Conversely, East Hall is a perennial contender with three state titles in the 2000s.
But David Tucker, in his first-year coaching the Panthers, has instantly changed the culture of the program, installing a wide-open, trigger-happy offense, a 1-1-3 pressure defense and, most importantly, a winning attitude.
“They play hard and practice well,” said Tucker, a 26-year coaching veteran who came to Union County from Walker Valley in Cleveland, Tenn. “We’ve got shooters, and in this game, if you can score, play decent defense and play hard, you’ve got a chance in every game. They’ve all bought into to my philosophy, and we could run into a wall any night, but we’ll come out the next night, fight again and be ready to go.
“I’m having a ball, but I always do. Everyone says we’ve been lucky, but luck counts and we’ll take it.”
Tucker’s offense is predicated on pushing the ball and finding the open man. He doesn’t care who has the ball, if a player is open, he’s supposed to shoot it.
“I don’t want to run plays, but I will,” Tucker said.
Tucker’s shoot-first style is a far cry from former coach Tim Hunter’s possession-control offense, and the Panthers are enjoying the new system.
“It’s definitely more fun,” senior post Skylar Smith said. “You get a lot more freedom to do more individual things and everyone likes to shoot the ball.
“At first when he said to shoot a lot, we liked the idea, but our coach last year convinced us we’d lose if we played at a fast pace, so we weren’t sure. After a couple games of blowing teams out, it worked, so we bought into it more.”
The Panthers opened the season with a 69-41 win over Jackson County and have been on a convincing roll ever since. All but two of their victories have been double-digits and four points is the closest any opponent has come — they edged 8-A’s Towns County 40-36.
Now comes Union County’s toughest challenge of the season. Of all Panthers opponents, only two have winning records, and the Vikings will be their first ranked opponent. East Hall and Union County last played in 2006, when this year’s senior class was still in middle school.
Vikings coach Joe Dix is impressed at how quickly Tucker has turned the Panthers around.
“It’s amazing,” said Dix, who ruptured his Achilles tendon prior to Friday’s game and will be in a walking boot tonight. He’s scheduled for surgery Wednesday, but doesn’t expect to miss any time on the bench.
“It’s a testament to the coaching staff and what they brought in, because that doesn’t just happen. Something went in a totally different direction, and that says a great deal to not only the coaches, but the players and their willingness to buy into something new.”
Dix preached to the Vikings during Monday’s practice the importance of winning this first matchup with the Panthers, because it’s on the road. The teams will meet again Feb. 11 in Gainesville for the regular season finale.
“It’s huge for both of us because, obviously, the winner puts everyone in the rearview with one loss (in the subregion),” Dix said. “The winner can control their own destiny. So really, we’ve got a chance to get the serious upper hand when we start the second half (of the season). We can put ourselves in good shape if we can get a good road win.”
Because East Hall played five games last week due to makeup dates from the snowstorm, Dix practiced his players lightly Monday.
“We’ve had time to rest, so fatigue isn’t a factor,” said Vikings senior post Sterling Bailey, who pulled down 19 rebounds in Saturday’s loss to Whitefield Academy.
Vikings senior guard-forward Dre Perry said East Hall is taking Union County’s perfect record seriously, and that they’ll be ready tonight.
“Their record speaks for itself, no matter who they’ve played,” Perry said. “They’re doing some good things right now, but we’re going to go out and play our hardest, no different than if we were playing any other team. We emphasized defense in practice, so that’s what we’re looking to bring to the table (tonight).”
Given the two teams’ knack for pressure defense and run-and-gun offense, tonight’s matchup has the makings of a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. And because of Union County’s strength of schedule to this point in the season, the Panthers might be considered an underdog.
That’s fine with Tucker.
“All I’ve heard about is East Hall, West Hall, Dawson County, etc.,” Tucker said. “We’ve never been mentioned and haven’t been beat, so we’ll just lace ’em up and play. I’m not from this area, and all I do is coach one game at a time.”