If there was any lingering speculation about Springdale potentially taking a step back in the state's largest classification, the Bulldogs may have ended it during the Summerwood Sports Team Camp.
Springdale, who reached the Class 6A state title game last season, recently lost one of its top players in Courtland Muldrew, a 6-3 junior who transferred out, and played in the event without another key piece in Cy Bates, a 6-4 junior who's nearing a return after dealing with an ailment, but the Bulldogs won't lack for firepower once things kick off later this year.
Bates will be back and so will several others.
"We're slowly piecing it together," Springdale Coach Jeremy Price explained. "We're trying to navigate things a little bit, and we've got a couple of new guards that we're trying to break in and get familiar with in the system. But when you have a guy like Isaiah Sealy who makes everybody else better, it's a plus.
"He just makes everyone comfortable."
The Bulldogs' star junior looked fairly comfortable during the entire camp. Sealy, a 6-7, 185-pounder who averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists as a sophomore, followed up a trio of strong games Monday with complete outings Tuesday, starting with Marion. The ESPN four-star prospect had 19 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals in Springdale's 55-50 victory.
"He draws so much attention," Price said of highly-touted guard. "But he's a complete player and is able to recognize everything that's going on out there. That's one of the things that makes him special."
The Bulldogs also unleashed another weapon against the Patriots, one who's eerily similar to Sealy. Aiden Gazaway, a 6-6 junior, drilled four three-pointers and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and two steals. Those kinds of numbers will help offset the offensive production Springdale lost and keep them in the thick of things in what's expected to again be a loaded Class 6A.
"He's trying to figure out who he is as a basketball player," Price said about Gazaway. "If he has space, he's a really good shooter. We're kind of continuing to develop his strength to where he can score a little easier at all three levels. But I do think physically, there's going to be a big change over the next five months for him.
"That'll only contribute to what he can already do."
No small chore
As one of only a few Class 4A schools playing at the camp, Forrest City found a way to hold its own.
The undersized Mustangs showed plenty of fight and flex over the past two days and were especially efficient Tuesday in their opener against Alma.
"We've played really hard," Forrest City Coach Marcus Britt said after his team beat the Airedales 60-53. "We're missing a big so we're really guard heavy right now, but honestly, we've looked pretty good. I like what I'm seeing."
Forrest City was bereft of size last season, too, when it didn't have anyone taller than 6-3. Yet, the Mustangs managed to go 18-14 and advance to a regional tournament. All signs point to Britt's group being small during the upcoming season as well, but they've proven that they can compete in spite of.
Melvin Shaw, who's generously listed at 6-0, had his fair share of points in the win over Alma. However, it was his nine rebounds that stood out. His soaring putback with 1:01 left in the game gave Forrest City a 58-51 cushion and propelled them to a win.
"He plays so much bigger than what he is," Britt said of the senior. "The scary thing about it is that he's only about 5-9, 5-10. He doesn't get a lot of recognition, but the kid plays like he's 6-3. He's got so much heart and will, and that's why he's been as successful as he has."
The Mustangs also got stand-out performances from Marcus Britt Jr., a 6-3 junior, and Jarvis Palmer, a 6-1 junior, against the Airedales, but according to the head coach, there's always room for improvement.
"Our transition defense," he said. "We gave up 8-10 points alone with that. So we know we've got to clean that up. But the good thing about it is that we've got time."
A rash of injuries derailed an otherwise promising 2022-23 season for Marion.
Here's to good health for the Patriots in the winter.
"Man that's the thing that really hurt us," Marion Coach David Clark said. "We really felt like we had a chance to win it all last season. To be honest, we were rolling. But then when Donnie [Cheers] got hurt, it pretty much changed things."
Marion went into that season having lost its top three scorers from the previous year, all of whom transferred, but the Patriots still flourished. The team spent the majority of the year ranked No. 1 in Class 5A until Cheers, who was the team's leading scorer, got hurt in early February. When the 6-3 guard and Southeast Missouri State commit suffered a season-ending leg injury, the Patriots took a hit. Marion continued to win games but wasn't nearly as dominant as it was.
"We were just hoping we could find a way to get to the title game," said Clark, whose team captured the 5A-East Conference title and reached the second round of the state tournament before losing to eventual runner-up Lake Hamilton 49-46. "A lot of people didn't realize we lost 100% of our scoring from the year before when Terrion [Burgess], Jayden [Forrest] and Ryan [Forrest] all left. And then Donnie goes down. So at that point, we're basically playing with mostly tenth graders.
"But I was still proud of the way the guys fought. We came up a little short, but we still managed to open some eyes because many people didn't expect us to do what we did."
No one should sleep on the Patriots when the season begins in the fall. Marion has both of its all-staters in Jalen White, a 6-6 senior, and Lyndell Buckingham, a 6-2 junior, returning and are equipped with an overwhelming abundance of size and depth.
Also, Clark expects big things from forward LaDaryl Robinson Jr. The 6-7 sophomore had 17 points, eight rebounds and three steals in a 55-50 loss to Springdale in Marion's second game Tuesday.
"We've got a lot of talent back, but we've got a lot coming in as well," Clark explained. "I like the things we're doing [at the camp], but we're excited about what we'll be able to do this year. The one thing that I'd like to see us be better at is toughness.
"We're big and athletic, but when you talk about being really tough with the basketball, we've got to be better at that. We let too many balls get away from us. But we're going to be okay. We'll be able to play above the rim, lock down on defense and score it."
Former North Little Rock and Florida guard KeVaughn Allen was in attendance. The former two-time Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year has been playing professionally overseas since 2019. ... Nettleton hit 11 three-pointers in a 65-61 win over Maumelle on Tuesday afternoon. Jacob Lanier, a 6-6 sophomore guard who holds offers from schools such as the University of Arkansas, Arizona State, Illinois and Texas Tech, had 21 points in the loss for the Hornets, who trailed by as many as 20 points. Maumelle also beat Marion 37-36 and Pine Bluff 54-49 on the day. ... The next two days of the camp will feature either schools from smaller classifications or junior varsity teams from larger classifications.