It’s hard to believe, but the high school football season is almost over, if it isn’t already for several area high schools. That means the sound of the slapping of pads is about to be replaced by the thumping of the basketball on the hardwood in local gymnasiums.

All teams have high hopes about their chances right now, on the eve of a new season. Three squads that are genuinely optimistic about the start of the 2012-13 season are the boys’ basketball teams from Aiken, South Aiken and North Augusta high schools. All three teams have a good mix of returning players and newcomers who could help each of them contend for the Region 5-AAAA title.

Aiken Hornets

Head coach: Tony Harrell

Last season: Aiken went 19-9, advanced to the Class AAAA Lower State championship game

Season opener: in Glenn Hills Preseason Classic, Nov. 19

The Hornets had an unexpected run to the Lower State championship game last season in spite of losing 10 seniors off the previous season’s squad. Harrell will be faced with a similar challenge this season as he must replace eight departed seniors from the state semifinalists.

“We did have a great run last year. We had great chemistry and great leadership,” Harrell said. “This year, we have really good athletes and really good players. We’ve just got to get on the same page. We’re going to find out who can do what.”

What Harrell knows for sure is that his team isn’t big in stature, but the players he has are fast and athletic. That’s not anything new for the Hornets, who figure to continue employing a up-tempo aggressive style of play.

“We’ve got to attack on both ends of the floor,” Harrell said of a scheme that will incorporate full-court pressure, which could lead to fast-break opportunities. Even when the Hornets don’t get going in transition, they’ll still be aggressive. “We’re going to attack the rim and then penetrate and kick out to our shooters.”

One player Aiken has that can fill both roles is Shawn Moore. The senior swingman is the Hornets’ top returning scorer because of his versatility. He was an All-Region selection because of his ability to knock down shots from the perimeter just as easily as he did scoring on drives to the basket.

Moore will be counted on to be Aiken’s primary weapon offensively, but he isn’t alone.

He’s expected to share the wealth with a player who is both new and familiar to the program. Deon Hicks is returning to the team after missing last season while being treated for leukemia.

“I’m so thrilled to have Deon back,” Harrell said of the guard who’s explosive athleticism made him stand out on as a sophomore on the senior-laden team two years ago. “He’s come so far battling his sickness and has a great attitude.”

Hicks’ mere presence should be an inspirational boost to Aiken, but his productivity could propel the Hornets to another level. He’s a solid shooter, a playmaker off the dribble and on weakside rotations and an outstanding defender who can be a one-man transition game.

“He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever coached. He’s so smart,” Harrell said.

Other returning players who will figure to make significant contributions include the point guard tandem of Jordan Habersham (a pure point guard) and Jaylen Croft (a scoring guard), forward Ryan McKie (a good defender and rebounder) and John Besson (an undersized forward who makes up for lack of size with effort).

Harrell is also counting on production from newcomers making the transition from JV to varsity. Among those he thinks will contribute are Stacy Poole (a 6-foot-3 forward with tremendous athleticism), Justin Smith (a sharpshooting guard), Megal Hill (a scrappy defender and rebounder) and Dominic Chaplin (who, at 6-4, is the Hornets tallest player and will provide shot blocking and rebounding.)

If all the pieces come together, Harrell’s Hornets could make another run at a state title.

“We want to win the region championship, make the playoffs and hopefully make a run,” Harrell said of goals. “The No. 1 goal is to get better every day and play our best basketball at the end of the year.”

South Aiken Thoroughbreds

Head coach: Drew Jernigan

Last season: South Aiken went 8-15, missed the playoffs

Season opener: Preseason Tournament at Grovetown, Nov. 19

Last season was Jernigan’s second as head coach at South Aiken, and the T-Breds showed improvement over a difficult campaign in his first year.

“Last year was a step in the right direction, but we could only go up,” said Jernigan, who’s looking forward to this season because the team that endured growing pains last year is returning. “I’m excited about this group. We’ve got the entire nucleus back.”

Leading the way for the T-Breds is the returning backcourt tandem of Jordan Dingle and Jordan Scott. Dingle’s a hyper-athletic guard who’s as talented at driving to the basket as any player in the area. According to Jernigan, the junior has improved in the offseason through his work with a Columbia-based AAU team.

“He’s much more consistent and doing things that make me say, ‘Wow,’?” Jernigan said of the player who’s already garnered an offer to play college basketball at Western Carolina and is drawing attention from Wofford, Colgate and Northern Florida. “He’s put in the work and is improving.”

Jernigan sees improvement all around for his team, which features many players who logged time last year as sophomores and got hard-earned experience. Probably no player learned more than Scott, a linebacker on the football team that Jernigan called his toughest player.

“He was able to withstand tough situations, and I expect good things,” Jernigan said of his guards, who should spearhead an aggressive style of play. “He’s a good defender, can rebound and is very physical.”

Jernigan was also highly complimentary of senior center Austin Kyles. He praised the 6-7 big man’s improvement and is excited about the possibilities for one of the few true centers in the area.

“He has put in the work, and his game has expanded,” Jernigan said of the center with an offer from Mars Hill. “He’s more consistent, and his fundamentals have improved.”

Jernigan is also counting on a few new players to help the T-Breds. One is Taihja Turner, a 6-3 junior swingman who can shoot and drive to the hoop. Turner was on the team last year but quit midway through the season. Jernigan credits him for maturing and coming back this year.

He also credits newcomer Latrell Brown for being “a joy to be around,” after transferring to South Aiken following a move from Oklahoma. Just a sophomore, Brown’s a power forward who’s aggressive on the glass and brings size to the roster, something the T-Breds have a good amount of. In addition to Brown and Kyles, Jernigan figures to have football lineman Justin Day (6-8) and Jared Hanna (6-5) as part of his rotation.

“It’s nice to have bigger bodies and a lot of them,” Jernigan said, who’s optimistic about the improvement the T-Breds can make. “This group wants to play for each other rather than themselves. … We need to get actual results and get more wins, but we can be a contender and possibly win the region title.”

North Augusta Yellow Jackets

Head coach: Al Young

Last season: North Augusta went 12-13, missed playoffs after losing play-in game against White Knoll

Season opener: in Evans Preseason Tournament, Dec. 1

Like Aiken and South Aiken, North Augusta has a solid core of proven players returning from last season. Many of the Yellow Jackets who took the court last year were seeing their first significant playing time and had to learn on the fly. After a year of seasoning, when they just missed out on the playoffs, the Yellow Jackets could be poised for a big season.

“I’m pretty excited,” Young said. “We’ve got 10 to 11 kids I feel confident playing.”

North Augusta features an athletic and versatile roster of players. It’s led by TJ Sheppard, who will be making the transition from off guard to point guard this season. He’s a player with lots of basketball savvy who will be the focal point of an up-tempo team. Expect the Yellow Jackets to continue to apply pressure and try to create easy scoring opportunities.

“That’s what we do; it’s what we believe in,” Young said, allowing that Sheppard could be a facilitator in a half-court offense. “We’re not just going to run the motion offense where we try to read what the defense gives us. We’re going to try and run some set plays.”

If that happens, expect big man Tavarez Hall to be involved. The center is only 6-4, but can play with his back to the basket and fill space. Young said Hall has shown great improvement, sharing the same compliment with Kenny Finley. The 6-3 forward is capable of sensational plays because of his athletic gifts, but petered out over the course of last season. Young believes he could be ready for more this year. Another key player coming back, hopefully, is Steve Copeland. The athletic guard was North Augusta’s leading scorer last season, but he injured his knee in the off season and isn’t expected to play until December at the soonest.

Until Copeland returns, more players will have the chance to contribute, including a few veterans of the JV team. Chandler Harrison, Lalik Dunbar, Christian Davis and Keyon West all distinguished themselves on JV last season and could add even more athleticism. Harrison is definitely a player to watch, because of his shooting ability and his defensive prowess. Should he, and the others emerge, the Yellow Jackets could have a special season.

“We want to win region; that’s always our goal,” Young said. “I’m pleased with their effort so far and believe anything can happen. We have faith and no fear.”

Noah Feit is the Sports Editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.