The 2010-11 prep basketball season was a disappointing one for all of the boys teams in Whitfield County as Christian Heritage, Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield missed the state tournament.
Murray County was the only area boys team that made state, advancing to the second round of the Class 3A tournament after winning the Region 7-3A title. North Murray was a win short of making the 2A state tournament in its first varsity season.
This season, things are turning around for some teams.
The biggest turnaround is happening in Tunnel Hill, where coach Ryan Richards’ Bruins are headed in the right direction at season’s midpoint. Starting a lineup filled with underclassmen last year, they finished with just six victories overall and were 1-13 in Region 7-4A.
The tough experience is paying off this year for Northwest, which improved to 9-3 overall with a blowout victory over Dalton on Tuesday night, avenging a pair of close losses to its rivals earlier this season.
“It is the same kids from last year, and they have just grown up,” Richards said after his team went on a 20-0 run against Dalton in the second quarter en route to beating the Catamounts 76-47.
“Last year, we didn’t have much of a belief in ourselves, and it showed as we only won six games and lost a lot of close games late in the contests. Now, we have that belief that we can win.”
While some of the area’s teams have already begun league play, region and sub-region play begins on a larger scale Friday as more area teams begin playing the games that matter when it comes to earning a spot in the postseason.
Northwest is already 2-0 in Region 7-4A play, while North Murray moved to 3-1 in Sub-region 7B-2A play with a victory over Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe on Tuesday night. Region 7-3A teams Dalton, Murray County and Southeast begin sub-region play on Friday — Dalton and Southeast in 7A-3A and Murray County in 7B-3A.
The Bruins play in a region where only three of the 11 teams currently sport losing records, but the race should be a good one to watch. At 13-0, Woodland-Bartow is the lone undefeated team heading back into the region race, but few of those wins have come against teams with winning records.
Chattahoochee, Creekview, Woodland and Northwest are all undefeated in region play, with Chattahoochee averaging the most points of those three. The Bruins will find out where they stand quickly, hosting Sequoyah on Friday before facing Creekview on Saturday.
Dalton suffered its worst loss of the season on Tuesday, but coach Mike Duffie’s Cats are still much improved from last year — when they’re able to put it all together. As Duffie said after the loss to the Bruins, there is little margin for error for his team.
At their best, the Cats are as strong as any area team, as evidenced by their title win at the Farm Bureau Christmas Classic. And high school basketball is all about getting hot at the right time to make a run.
Dalton is 8-5, but other Sub-region 7A-3A teams had even better first halves to the season — Ringgold is 12-1, while LaFayette stands at 9-2.
The Cats don’t have any height in the middle, but can compete well when they are moving the ball and pressing effectively. But they have been down as well as up — one of their losses came to a 7-6 Murray County team much different from last year’s dominating Indians.
“I’ll tell you how good this team can be after Friday,” Duffie said Tuesday night after the loss to Northwest. “We will see how we respond to this.”
With seeding on the line, now is the time for all of the area’s boys teams to play their best.
Now is when the fun really begins.
• For area girls basketball teams, it is much the same story, with some squads finding their rhythm and improving, while others are hoping to put it all together at the right time.
Christian Heritage and Dalton dominated the landscape last year, with the Lady Cats advancing to the Georgia High School Association’s Class 3A state title game and the Lady Lions making a trip to Milledgeville for the Georgia Independent School Association Class 2A state semifinals.
With their sub-region schedule set to begin on Friday, inexperience has shown this season for the Lady Cats, who are 7-5.
The one thing missing for Dalton is a go-to player like four-year starting point guard Amanda Rector, now a freshman at North Georgia College. Rector, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year for 2010-11, could take over a game with either her scoring or her ability to create opportunities for other players, something Dalton has lacked in the first half of this season.
The Lady Cats need someone step up into that role, especially without a dominating inside presence, and they will have to rely much more on their full-court pressure defense this year.
At 9-3, Christian Heritage already has one more loss than all of last season, but the Lady Lions have played a much tougher schedule this year while working to claim a state title in their final GISA season before jumping to the GHSA next school year. Senior Maggie Peeples is perhaps the best girls basketball player in area — she scored her 2,000th career point earlier this season — and will be counted on to push the team into a deep postseason run.
The schools showing the most improvement this year are in Murray County, where a youthful infusion has pushed North Murray into serious playoff contention and Murray County’s Lady Indians have already eclipsed last year’s win total with half the season left to play.
The Lady Mountaineers are 8-5 overall and 2-2 in sub-region play, but when they are on they can compete with anyone in the region. Murray County is 5-8, and while that may not seem impressive, coach Michael Hill’s team has had some losses to Northwest Georgia’s top programs.
The real question mark for the girls is at Northwest Whitfield. The Lady Bruins have been dominant and they have been not-so-dominant — their 7-6 record can attest to that. But the quality of their schedule has been stout.
“I think our confidence is a lot better,” coach Greg Brown said. “We have defined some things, and we loaded the first part of the schedule with quality teams. We are ready to play our best basketball of the season.”
Still, the Lady Bruins are in an 0-2 hole in the region.
It will be interesting to see how the second half of the season plays out for all of the area’s girls teams.
• There is nothing like a little family feud to add to the excitement of the Northwest-Dalton girls rivalry, and Lady Cats assistant coach Jodi Stuckey fired a shot across the bow before Tuesday’s meeting between the two schools.
Stuckey is the aunt of Lady Bruins center Reed Robinson, and Robinson woke up on Tuesday to find that her front yard had been decorated with red, white and black balloons, as well as several “Go Big Red!” signs.
Robinson’s car had been shoe polished with “Cat Lover” on the driver’s side window, and Stuckey’s daughter even got into the act by coloring cat paws on the driveway. All of this was done Monday night before Tuesday’s big game.
“When I woke up, my dad was like, ‘Have you been outside yet?’” Robinson said after her Lady Bruins beat Dalton on Tuesday. “I looked out the little peephole and was like, ‘Who did that?’ And then screamed, ‘Jodi!’”
For Stuckey, it was a way to send her senior niece out with style.
“We thought about it a lot,” Stuckey said with a laugh. “It is her senior year, and I wanted to go out in a crazy way. The whole family eats (the rivalry) up.”
Chris Whitfield is a sports writer for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at email@example.com.