The Macon County High School graduated five seniors from last season’s 18-11 squad.

That will result in a wealth of new faces taking the court for the Tigers this season.

“You’re losing four starters, and the first guy off the bench left,” Macon County 15th-year head coach Jason Welch said. “It makes for a complete overhaul as far as style of play. You make mental notes. It’s slow steps.

“The guys we have are good. They’re guys who have been in the program for four years. They’ve played lot of JV (junior varsity) games and have practiced against really good people. All of those guys who are seniors have played really good minutes. Clay (West) has probably played the least, but he came in and played against Livingston (Academy) last year and did well.”

The season ended earlier than expected for the Tigers, who suffered a 54-42 loss to seventh-seeded Watertown in the District 8-AA Tournament quarterfinal round. That loss snapped a stretch of 10 consecutive regional appearances for Macon County.

“You make teams from November to March,” Welch said. “You make players from March to November. They’re a fun group. We had games this summer (at basketball camps) where we got hammered. They would come back and battle and have a great day the next day. We went to Waynesboro (for camp) and played 16 games in three days with 11 players.”

The most experienced of the returnees is senior guard Cameron Welch, a three-year starter. Welch was a District 8-AA Third Team All-District honoree last season and an 8-AA All-Defensive Team selection, averaging 7.5 points, 2.7 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game and led the team with 49 made 3-pointers.

“We’ll rely on Cameron a lot,” Jason Welch said. “Last year, they face-guarded him a lot. We’ll see something like that this year.

“He’s an hour and a half or two hours in the gym every day doing extra stuff. I’ve rebounded 10 million shots. He’s worked really hard at it. Last year, he never got over the broken foot. He just didn’t have any mobility. He made 21 less threes (3-pointers) his junior year than he did his sophomore year. Some of that is how that teams played us. He had a great summer. He’s stronger, faster and has more endurance. He’s done all those things. He’s put his heart and soul into it.”

Classmate Kelton Ballou also enjoyed extensive playing time last year and will be expected to help set the tempo for a squad that hopes to play at a fast pace.

“Everything we do is an experiment,” Welch said. “This summer, there was four games where we had everybody. In those games, we played pretty well. It’s going to be a different menu this year. We’ve been ground and pound the last two years. This bunch is going to be a lot more up-tempo and fast-paced.

“When we go to running and you have Kelton on the right side running as hard as he can and Trent (Cook) running down the left side as hard as he can and Cameron running down the middle as hard as he can and Clay trailing and Lake (Reid) running to the rim, it’s going to be an exciting brand of basketball. We have to take the ball to the rim.”

Like Ballou, Cook – also a senior – played extensively last season.

“He will play inside and out,” Welch said. “He can shoot it. He has a natural knack of scoring close to the basket. We went to Waynesboro short-handed, and he and Clay just dominated inside. That left hand throws people off. I expect him to have a breakout season.”

West – another senior – and Reid – a junior – are both forwards.

“Clay West will surprise people,” Welch said. “He’ll make people ask, ‘Why didn’t he play more?’ We’ll be feast and famine with our inexperience at times, but he shoots the ball so well and is super smart guy. He will defend the way we want him to defend. He’s a fantastic kid.

“I think Lake Reid is going to have a good year for us. He’s a lot like a Brandon Tuttle and Dallas Grace for us. In that trail three (position), he’s going to get a lot of shots.”

Sophomore guard Ethan Jenkins could factor into the starting lineup, and senior guard Noah Likens, sophomore guard Connor Johnson, freshman guard Braydee Brooks, sophomore forward Noah Hale, sophomore forward Kyson Herald and junior forward Brandon Jones could all factor into the regular rotation. Jones – who stands at 6-foot-4 – is playing for the first time since junior high.

“We’re stressing aggressive play,” Welch said. “We should press. We should be active. In the summer, we pressed early, and it was good. We aggravate people. We’ve conditioned more than we have in the past, and we were lucky this year that we could go over to football and use their weights (in the offseason). It’s a fun group. Physicality is one thing we have to concentrate on. We have to take charges and backside rebound. We do that every day, and those are things we will get better at.

“We have to go (fast). Defense, we have play every play. We have to break on long rebounds. We have to get over 50 percent of loose balls. We have to get guys to turn loose and see what they can do. We’re not looking for Kelton to just dribble down the floor. We need Kelton to run down the floor and make everybody stop him because he’s so fast.”

The team’s inexperience is one of the biggest concerns.

“We’ve always stressed that you play when you’re out there,” Welch said. “A high-school game is different than a middle school game. But … it’s still the same basketball. After a few minutes, you should be okay that night. If you’re not nervous, you’re not ready to play.

“We try to teach people to make quick decisions and to make sound decisions repeatedly. We look for big things for all of those guys. There’s six or seven guys there who might score 20 points one night. Ethan could do it. Those shooters coming off the bench could get hot and make five or six threes. We’ve struggled to find shooters the last couple of years. These guys are going to make shots. From one to five, we have five guys who can all shoot. We’re going to stretch people out. We’re going to make people come guard us. If you make four out of 10 shots, we’re going to win doing that. We have to be able to score, and our defense, we have to fight every possession. It’s nothing easy … no layups, no threes, no fouls.”

Despite the graduation losses, the team’s expectations of success remain high.

“We expect to win,” Welch said. “This team as eighth-graders lost one game and won the state. Our skill level has improved.

“We still want to win the district and host a first-round region (game). You figure out where you want to be, and then, you work backwards to get there. In August, when school started, we started running and lifting. We did a fall league this year. We had Clay County and Trousdale County come up and play. We haven’t just sat around and thought we were going to get better. We’ve had guys getting in the gym and getting shots up. Somebody is working all the time. Cameron is in the gym a lot, but there’s usually somebody here with him.”

Welch expects Upperman to be among the top teams in District 8-AA.

“Upperman will be the No. 1 team,” Welch said. “They don’t lose anybody from last year. Livingston has had some kids graduate and move. York (Institute) has some people move in, so, we really don’t know. I think Upperman is the No. 1.

“We’re (predicted to finish) from third through sixth, but I still think we should win it. Last year, it came down to the last game or two of the season. We could have been a one seed or a three seed. It just depends on what you do in early February.”

Macon County played at Clarkrange on Tuesday in a Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association Hall of Champions game and will play another Hall of Champions game by hosting Stone Memorial on Friday. The Tigers will open district play on Nov. 30 by hosting Smith County.