JONESBORO — Valley View has several key players to replace. Just ask 18th-year head coach Jason Manchester, who reels off a list of last season’s seniors without missing a name.
But the Blazers also have an all-state big man, 6-foot-9 senior forward C.J. Delancy, and other returnees who figure to make them a factor in the 4A-3 conference race.
“We feel like we can be in the mix. It may take a while,” Manchester said. “But at the same time, our guard play has to be ready. We know what we’re getting out of C.J., but our guard play has to be steady for us to have an opportunity in this league because it’s an awfully good league.”
Valley View was among the league’s best in 2019-20, compiling an 18-8 record, although the season didn’t end as the Blazers hoped.
Westside nosed out Valley View for second place in the 4A-3 regular-season race and got the best of the Blazers again in the district semifinals, leaving them as a No. 4 seed in the rugged East Region tournament. Playing at Blazer Arena, Valley View battled eventual state champion Little Rock Mills to the wire in the first round before losing 55-52 to fall one victory short of the state tournament.
Three of the four state semifinalists came from the East Region.
“The bottom line is if you can make it out of our regional, you can make some noise,” Manchester said.
With Delancy in the middle, the Blazers hope to get loud in February and March.
Delancy, who has committed to continue his career at Long Island University of the Northeast Conference, averaged 16 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots per game as a junior.
He had a triple-double against Little Rock Catholic and 11 double-doubles, finishing the season with 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks against Mills.
Manchester said Delancy is able to step outside the lane more than he could last year.
“I’m not going to freak out if he’s shooting it outside a little bit more than he has in the past,” Manchester added. “Last year we played him with his back to the basket and we’ll still do that a lot, but he’s added a dimension to his game that’s going to help as far as being able to step out on the floor. He’s able to do that a lot better than what he was a year ago.
“What we need him to improve on from last year is he has to be able to stay on the floor. He’s learned how to use his body a lot better and he’s been able to watch a lot of tape and figure out those fouls he wanted to eliminate.”
The Blazers have a couple of proven backcourt threats in 6-3 junior Connor Tinsley and 5-10 senior Wil French.
Tinsley averaged eight points, three rebounds and two assists as a sophomore, shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line. Manchester said Tinsley will probably play point guard more with the graduation of all-state selection Travis Graf.
French started every game as a sophomore in the 2018-19 season, averaging 10 points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals per game.
An Arkansas State baseball signee, French missed last season because of shoulder surgery and “it’s almost like we got a bonus starter back, because he would have started last year,” Manchester said.
Manchester said Tinsley and French will be interchangeable at point guard, one playing there and the other off the ball.
“Connor played off the ball a lot more last year because of Travis, but he’s ready to step into that role of being the primary ball-handler,” Manchester said. “Having Wil back will help Connor as well because Wil provides toughness that you can’t coach. We missed Wil a lot more than what even I anticipated last year because Wil knows how to win.”
Manchester said the other places in Valley View’s lineup have been up for grabs.
Parker St. Pierre, a 5-11 junior guard, is a talented outside shooter capable of knocking down seven or eight 3-pointers on a given night, Manchester said.
“People are going to have to go guard and respect him, and that’s going to open some things for us offensively as well,” Manchester added.
Brothers Christian Allen (6-2 senior) and Caleb Allen (6-1 junior) figure to contribute at forward and guard, respectively. Manchester said 5-9 sophomore guard Peyton Ellis can give the Blazers toughness off the bench and 6-3 sophomore forward Jay Morman will add length and athleticism.
Manchester lists Blytheville and Brookland first when asked about the 4A-3 race. Blytheville won the regular-season title last season and reached the state quarterfinals, while Brookland made a run to the state semifinals and narrowly missed the championship game.
“With what they have coming back and the season they had a year ago, Brookland and Blytheville will be awfully good,” Manchester said. “Don’t count out Westside; Coach (Mark) Whitmire always does an excellent job down there and I know they lost a lot of guys, but they’ll be in the mix. Southside is very dangerous, Pocahontas and Highland and Trumann are as well.
“The bottom line in this league, especially with our team, is we’re capable of beating, quote, the top dogs, but we’re also capable of getting beat by anybody. We’ll have our work cut out for us. It’s going to be a very balanced league.”