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Bulldogs ready to make a run at second straight county title

Red Bay’s boys had Belgreen on the ropes back in mid-November before stumbling late in a 56-53 loss, but Tiger head coach John Torisky believes the Bulldogs are the clear favorites heading into next week’s Franklin County Tournament.

“Belgreen is the team to beat,” said Torisky, whose team is the No. 2 seed for the tournament and will face third-seeded Tharptown next Friday night in a semifinal game. “They won it last year, and they’ve beaten everybody in the county so far this year. They have a lot of guys back from last year, and they’re used to winning.”

That’s especially the case at home, where the Bulldogs (13-3 overall through Sunday) have lost just twice since the start of last season and are a perfect 5-0 this year.

“The tournament is on their home floor, and it will be really difficult to beat them at home,” Torisky said. “We played them there in our second game of the year, and they were pumped up. There was a lot of energy in there. It’s always tough to beat them at home, and it’ll be even tougher to do it in the county tournament.”

Back on November 17, Red Bay (12-6 overall through Sunday) was on the verge of dealing Belgreen a rare home loss, leading by 10 roughly halfway through the fourth quarter. Then junior post player Gath Weatherford, sophomore point guard Clay Allison and freshman reserve Braden Ray—the Tigers’ three top scorers on the season—all fouled out down the stretch, and the Bulldogs rallied to escape with a three-point win.

“I wouldn’t say we let them have it. They took it from us,” Torisky said on Sunday. “We’d love to have another chance against them in the county tournament. We wouldn’t necessarily look at it as a revenge game, though; it would just be another opportunity.”

In order to earn that opportunity, the Tigers must first get by Tharptown (6-8 through Sunday) in the semifinals, which is by no means a guarantee. Red Bay survived a 20-point night from senior guard Levi McCormack to beat the Wildcats 52-42 back in late November.

“He had a really big game against us,” Torisky said of McCormack, who had made a county-best 39 threes through Sunday and was averaging 13.0 points per game. “I think the key to beating Tharptown is slowing him down a little bit. They have some other guys who are good, too, but we can’t let McCormack go off again like he did last time.”

Senior forward Cole Daniel leads the Wildcats in scoring at 13.6 points per game. He and McCormack have topped the 20-point mark three times each this season, and sophomore post player Edward Lopez averages a solid 8.3 points per game.

If the Tigers (who were holding opponents to an average of just 49.6 points per game through Sunday) are able to bottle up McCormack and company and get by Tharptown, the top-seeded Bulldogs could well be waiting in next Saturday night’s final. That would afford fans an opportunity to see two of the best big men in northwest Alabama—the 6’3 Weatherford and 6’6 Belgreen junior Mason Bragwell—go head-to-head.

Bragwell, who recently surpassed the 1,000-point mark for his career, was averaging 20.2 points per game this season through Sunday, best in Franklin County. He put up 25 points in last Friday’s 69-50 win over Tharptown, topping the 20-point mark for the 10th time this year. Weatherford, meanwhile, was averaging 16.7 points per game through Sunday while making 28 threes and shooting 84 percent (72-for-86) from the foul line.

“Gath has gotten a lot better,” said Belgreen coach Clint Isbell, whose team won all three meetings with Red Bay last year, including one in the county semifinals. “He’s a more skilled player now. That would be a really good matchup to see.”

Weatherford’s improvement has been a driving force behind the Tigers’ turnaround from a 2-24 team last season to a team with a legitimate shot to host the Class 2A, Area 14 tournament this season. [Red Bay would earn that right with a win at Lamar County on Tuesday night.] A county championship would be the icing on the cake.

“Red Bay hasn’t hosted an area tournament since 2005,” Torisky said. “That would be big for us if we can get that win at Lamar County. We haven’t really talked a lot about specific goals this season, because I just wanted our guys to focus on playing their best basketball every night. I knew if we did that, we could live with the result. But lately we have talked about a couple of things that are right in front of us.

“Our focus this week is to finish taking care of business in the area and earn the right to host the area tournament. Then we’ll have the next week-and-a-half to focus on the county tournament.”

The Tigers, who surround Weatherford with capable scorers and shooters in Ray (8.9 points per game), Allison (8.6 points per game, with 20 made threes) and junior guard Colton Corum (7.5 points per game, 21 made threes), should be Belgreen’s primary challenger next week, but they won’t be the only one. Phil Campbell was just 3-9 through Sunday, but the Bobcats could be a dangerous No. 5 seed—especially now that they’re getting closer to full strength.

Senior guard Joe Hardy returned from meniscus surgery last Thursday against Phillips and made an immediate impact, totaling 10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and five steals in a 68-41 rout of the Bears. Senior forward Peyton Thomas (15.9 points per game through Sunday) is a threat to take over a game on any given night, and Phil Campbell has other capable weapons in junior guard Nate Owens (9.2 points per game, with 19 made threes), senior guards Rhett Benford (7.7 points per game, 12 made threes) and Daniel Smith (7.7 points per game, including a career-high 21 in last week’s win over Phillips), and senior post player Brody Nix (7.0 points per game).

The Bobcats, who led Belgreen at halftime of a 68-52 loss on December 15, will face fourth-seeded Vina in a first-round game next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. A win there would set up a semifinal meeting with Belgreen next Thursday night.

“Phil Campbell played us really tough a couple of days ago,” said Torisky, whose team survived a 22-point effort from Thomas to beat the Bobcats 52-48 last Friday. “They’re healthier now, and I think they’d have a shot. But, going into it, I think it’s definitely Belgreen and then everybody else.”

Isbell isn’t so sure about that.

“I think it’ll be a tough tournament, a good tournament,” he said. “Red Bay is playing really well, and Phil Campbell just got one of their players back in Joe Hardy. I expect they’ll be better with him. I think it will be a tough time for everybody. All the teams are pretty evenly matched, and everybody can compete. There should be some good matchups and not a lot of blowout games.”

Make no mistake about it, though—the Bulldogs, who are 14-1 against county competition since the start of last season, have earned favorite status. Mason Bragwell is the most dominant offensive player in the county, teaming with junior guard Brant Bragwell (13.7 points per game, with 23 made threes) and senior point guard Jacob Mayberry (9.6 points per game through Sunday) to form a terrific trio.

Isbell’s team has depth, too; when Brant Bragwell sat out last Friday’s win over Tharptown to rest his sore knee, senior guard Seth Taylor stepped into the starting lineup and promptly scored a career-high 23 points, drilling four threes. Senior guard Eli Hiser (6.5 points per game) had a 20-point game in a December win over Carbon Hill, and senior forward Payton Scott (6.6 points per game) is one of the team’s top defenders and rebounders.

All of those players played key roles last season for a Belgreen team that won 22 games and made it to the Northwest Regional. Returning to Hanceville is certainly a goal this season, but the Bulldogs will be focused next week on winning a second straight county championship—this time in front of their home fans.

“That’s definitely one of our goals this year,” Isbell said. “We’ve got a lot of goals for the year, and winning the county is a steppingstone to the other ones. To win at a high level in basketball, you have to know how to win tournaments.”

Red Bay’s boys would love to enjoy the kind of postseason success Belgreen had a year ago. Based on what he's seen, Isbell believes the Tigers are more than capable.

“Coach Torisky does a really good job, and his guys have bought in,” Isbell said. “They play extremely hard. They want to win. They expect to win. They have a different mindset now, and you can tell.”

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