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JEHS Hornets host Sunshine

The John Essex Hornets are viewing tonight’s contest against Sunshine as a must-win game. The team has hit a rough patch of late, dropping five of its last seven games after a hot start that had it positioned at the top of Class 1A, Area 5.

Now, the Hornets find themselves in a three-way dogfight to determine seeding with tonight’s visiting Tigers and the Sweet Water Bulldogs.

“They know what we’re up against,” head coach Rodney Dixon said of his players. “I think they’re focused.”

With a win tonight, John Essex would move to 5-3 in the area and clinch the No. 2 seed heading into the upcoming area tournament.

A loss, however, would plummet the team down the rankings and into a scenario in which it would need to win a coin toss to take the No. 3 seed in the tournament and avoid an obligatory play-in game against A.L. Johnson.

As dire as his team’s circumstances are, Dixon is encouraged by the fact that his team gets to decide its fate on its own floor.

“We’ve been on the road,” Dixon said of the team’s recent struggles away from the friendly confines of its own gym. “We haven’t been beaten but one time at home this season.”

That loss came in the first game of the season against 3A Aliceville. Since that time, JEHS is 4-0 at home.

The Hornets have not played in their own gym since a Dec. 19 win over Sweet Water.

“They’re staying up,” Dixon said of his team’s mentality. “Practice has been upbeat. They don’t hold their heads down.

In order to help relax his team, Dixon took many of his players to a basketball game at the University of Alabama earlier this week.

“I was just trying to make sure they were in the right mindset, show them some good basketball, show them what hard work may do for them,” Dixon said of the trip.

Now, it is back to business for JEHS, who is charged with the task of overcoming Sunshine and its standout big man, 6-foot-8-inch center Dayton Mickens.

“We just have to play our game. Last time we tried to do special things,” Dixon said of the Hornets’ Dec. 18 loss at Sunshine. “Really and truly, I think we should have just played our game, played hard-nosed D and made them adjust to us.”

Dixon said he will not make the same mistake against the Tigers this go-round.

“He could very well score 20 points. He can score his 20 points and as long as we stop everybody else, we’ll be okay,” Dixon said of defensing Mickens. “We’ve got to put pressure on their guards and make them prove they can play.”

The Hornets will counter with an offensive attack that is led by senior Zackary Fluker, who averages 19.5 points per game this season and is fresh off a season-high 27-point outing against Aliceville Tuesday night.

Fluker’s top complements of late have been junior Preston Parker, who averages 9.2 points and 13.3 rebounds per game for JEHS, and junior Tavoris Merriweather, who posted a 17-point, 11-rebound performance against region rival A.L. Johnson one week ago.

JEHS wraps up its season Jan. 31 when it hosts Demopolis.