BLOUNTVILLE - Looking for one word to define Justin Hess? Try unassuming.
At first glance, the Sullivan Central senior - a four-year letterman in basketball - cuts an impressionable figure.
With his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame, he seems a likely candidate for a vacant tight-end position on the Cougars' football team. On the hardwood, Hess appears a shoe-in for low-post success.
But, you see, Hess isn't interested in stereotypes.
"I'm not concerned with how I play, I just want to do whatever I have to do to help us win," Hess said. "I just come out and try to help everyone on the floor be a better player."
And it's safe to say he's accomplished that.
Hess was a key member of Central's District 1-AAA tournament-winning team a year ago, scoring 19 points in the championship against heavily-favored Science Hill.
Now, as a senior, Hess has become the Cougars' fulcrum during what many deemed a rebuilding year. In the process, he's become one of the most versatile players in the Big 9 Conference, if not the state.
Take that stereotype.
"He does things that you can't believe," Central coach Tony Vaughn said. "He uses his frame well; he has very quick hands. He can shoot but looks to pass first, maybe too much at times, and he can also post up.
"Ultimately, he makes things happen for us."
Hess has been making things happen for himself, and his teammates, ever since he can remember. Never one to view his size as a disadvantage, he has always wanted the ball in his hands.
"I've always been that kind of player," Hess said of his ability to make plays from a variety of positions. "If I need to handle the ball, I'll handle the ball. If I need to play down low, I will. Whatever it takes, I'm willing to do it."
Never has a sentiment been so dead-on. This season, Hess has been everywhere - literally. He leads the Cougars, who are now 15-9 overall and fourth in the Big 9 Conference, in several statistical categories including points (16.7) and steals (3.4) per game. He's second in rebounding - grabbing six per contest - and is shooting 47 percent from the field.
Add to that a staggering six deflections - a hugely underrated statistic - and almost four assists each outing and you have yourself quite an eclectic star.
"He's a natural athlete," Vaughn said.
Tuesday night Hess filled the stat sheet during the first quarter of a key league contest with Sullivan East. As the period came to a close, Hess had compiled two points, two rebounds, two steals and a deflection. He also had forced a pair of turnovers (via pressure) and kept two possessions alive with tips - both of which led to layups.
"He does the right things, a lot of things that people don't see," Vaughn said. "The other kids feed off the way he plays. That's a role I'm not sure he really understands, but it has been placed on him and he's ran with it."
A larger leadership role also has been placed upon Hess, though that hasn't been nearly as hard a transition as taking over the bulk of the scoring load when fellow senior Wes Baker was sidelined earlier the season due to injury.
"I knew losing Gabe (Buchanan) and Phil (Weatherford) meant that someone was going to have to step up this year," Hess said. "I've tried to be that person. I just want to win.
"When Wes was out, I played down low and also outside too," Hess said. "It was tough, but I think I handled it pretty well."
Hess' transition from role player to leader has no doubt been easier thanks to the extreme unselfishness he exhibits. He has an uncanny ability to work his teammates into games and, on several occasions, has happily deferred to his comrades in the waning moments of tight contests.
"I know when a team keys on me, somebody else has to be open," Hess said, "and I'm always looking for the open man. I always want to make something happen."
But don't expect him to pass up a game-winner too often.
"He wants the ball in his hands at the end of the game," Vaughn said. "He wants to take the pressure shot.
"He thinks every shot he takes is going in,"
Hess hopes his next shot secures a district title. Although Central has been sporadic this season, Hess has a simple solution that may just put them back in contention.
"We just need to come out and be unselfish," Hess said. "We've become more of an individual team lately and we need to get back to team basketball. I definitely think that will get us back on track."
That suggestion paid immediate dividends against East - a game the Cougars eventually won 75-62.
As for life after high school, Hess is interested in attending Walters State Community College in Morristown, possibly as a member of the basketball team.
Vaughn sees no reason why that can't happen.
"You can measure size, you can measure speed and quickness but you can't measure heart," Vaughn said. "His heart and his will to win is the biggest thing he brings to this team.
"You can bet he'll bring that to the next level, too."