TIFTON -- After going 28-1 last season and playing for a state title, the Tift County Blue Devils will enter the 2004-05 season with some big shoes left to fill.

Donnell Cullins is the only returner that saw significant playing time last season. All of the other players who saw a lot of court time have since graduated with four of them going on to sign college scholarships.

As the Devils prepare to open the new season Tuesday at home against Turner County, Tift coach Robert Moore will rely heavily on Cullins to provide leadership early on during the new campaign.

"Donnell is our leader. He will be the heart of the team. As he goes, we will go. He is a winner and I am looking for big things out of him," Moore said.

Named as the 2003-04 State Class AAAAA Coach of the Year by the Georgia Sports Writers Association, Moore said Cullins and the new Devils squad are "ready to start playing."

"We are tired of going against each other. We are ready for another opportunity to see how far we can go," Moore said.

While Cullins is the only one back with significant experience from last season, Moore is not out of veteran leadership as he does return other players who were a part of last year's squad.

"Ernest Taylor is working hard during his senior year. We are expecting a lot from him. Kelvin Burns got hurt during football and he is ready to contribute. He will be slowed some at the start of the year due his shoulder injury, but we are also expecting big things from him," said Moore.

Other players that Moore mentioned included Larry Dean, James Pitts, Keith Cagle and Jermaine Bailey.

"Larry and James have given us a lot of intensity and hard work. We are expecting Keith to give us an outside shooter, if he can stay mentally tough throughout the game. Jermaine will be our starting center. We are hoping he can really help us with defensive rebounding," Moore said.

Early in the year, Moore, along with assistants Anthony Bateman and John Spurlin, will work on the team.

"We want to get nine or 10 players that can really help us, that we can rotate in and out," Moore said.

He continued, "at the start of the year, we are just going to go one game at a time. That was one of the things that made last year's team so successful, their ability to take things one day at a time."

Moore is expecting a quick test against Turner.

"They have four of their five starters back. The only one they are missing is James Pitts and he is playing with us now. We are expecting them to be a strong test for us," the coach said.

As far as Region 1-AAAAA is concerned, Moore is expecting Lowndes and Coffee to be among the teams to beat.

Before opening the region schedule Jan. 7 at home against Valdosta, Tift will be tested several times.

"We have an extremely tough schedule. We will play Brookwood, Stephenson, Marist, Dougherty and Westover among others. That should help us get ready and see where we are at when the region starts," Moore said.

Tuesday's games will begin at 6 p.m. with the Lady Devils taking on Turner. The boys' game will follow at approximately 7:30 p.m. At halftime of that game, last year's team will be honored and presented with patches to go on their letterman's jackets.

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