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Lady Bobcats adjusting to role as county favorites

When the 2018 Franklin County Tournament tips off at Belgreen High School next Tuesday, the vibe coming from the varsity girls bracket will undoubtedly be different than it’s been in a long, long time.

For starters, Red Bay’s girls—winners of the past seven county tournament titles and 18 of the last 19 dating back to 1999—will be playing on opening night as the No. 5 seed against fourth-seeded Tharptown. If the Lady Tigers (6-11 through Sunday) are to maintain their nearly two-decade stranglehold on the county championship, it will require three wins rather than the usual two.

“I’ve been coaching varsity girls basketball for twelve years, and I don’t remember them being in the four-five game,” said Chad Green, who coached Tharptown’s girls for nine years and is now in his third season with Belgreen. “Sometimes they’ve been the one seed, sometimes the two seed, but I don’t think they’ve been in the four-five game.”

Green would know. His last four teams at Tharptown lost to Red Bay in the county finals, as did his Belgreen girls a year ago. In each instance, Green’s counterpart on the Red Bay bench was Donnie Roberts, who led the Lady Tigers to 27 county titles in his 34 years at the helm.

Roberts retired after last season, having led Red Bay to a remarkable record of 37-1 in county tournament play over the past 19 years. [The Lady Tigers’ lone loss during that stretch of dominance came to Belgreen in the 2010 championship game.]

“It’ll be a little strange,” Green said on Sunday. “Donnie’s a Hall of Fame coach. It will be different not seeing him on the sidelines.”

Roberts’ departure—along with that of 2017 graduates Allie Kennedy and Darby Madden, who helped lead the Lady Tigers to six county titles in their six years at the varsity level—has rendered this year’s trophy up for grabs. For the first time since Belgreen ended Red Bay’s run of 11 consecutive crowns back in 2010, the final outcome of the county tournament doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion.

Or does it?

Phil Campbell (11-5 through Sunday) has asserted itself as the most likely successor to Red Bay’s throne; four wins this season against county competition by an average margin of 30 points have certified head coach Craig Thomas and the top-seeded Lady Bobcats as the team to beat next week at Belgreen.

“Right now, Phil Campbell is the favorite,” said Green, whose team lost 64-41 at PCHS in mid-December. “Coach Thomas does a great job with them. They’ve got a good ball team. They’ve beaten all the county teams they’ve played during the regular season. I think that definitely makes them the favorite.”

Whether they want to be or not.

“I’d rather be the underdog, to be honest with you,” said Thomas, whose team will play next Thursday night in the semifinals against the Tharptown/Red Bay winner. “This is quite a turnaround for us. We were the four seed last year. Now we’re the one seed. This is new to us.”

One expects that Thomas won’t mind his team wearing the bullseye quite so much if arriving at the tournament as the favorite means leaving it as the champion. None of Phil Campbell’s current players were even born the last time the Lady Bobcats won the county title.

“Winning the county would be a huge step up for our program,” he said. “It would be history-making. It’s been a long time since Phil Campbell’s girls have been able to say they were county champions. It would be really exciting if we can pull it off.”

By all rights, it would qualify as a major upset if they don’t. No team in the county can match the Lady Bobcats’ combination of length, athleticism, talent, experience and depth.

Junior Abby Davis, a 5’11 post player averaging a team-best 13.4 points per game through Sunday, went over the 1,000-point mark for her varsity career back in early December. Senior guard Darby Elliott (9.5 points per game) has a chance to join Davis in the 1,000-point club by season’s end and also serves as the catalyst for Phil Campbell’s suffocating pressure defense.

Veteran guards Dakota Elliott (a junior averaging 8.3 points per game through Sunday) and Chloe Roberson (a senior scoring 7.5 points per game) are solid contributors on both ends of the floor, and freshman guard Caitlynn Mills (5.6 points per game) brings scoring and quickness off the bench.

The real difference-maker for the Lady Bobcats, though, has been sophomore guard Kallie Allen, a Russellville transfer who ranks second on the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game. Allen provides much-needed perimeter shooting (22 threes made through Sunday, tops on the team) and gives Thomas another defensive disruptor to create havoc on the press. [Allen had eight steals—to go along with a season-high 19 points—in the win over Belgreen on December 15.]

“Coach Thomas has a great team with a lot of athletes,” Green said. “They pressure the ball well, and they get out in transition. I think they’re as good as any 2A team in north Alabama.”

Green’s Belgreen team will host Phil Campbell in a regular-season game on Friday, and they might get another shot at the Lady Bobcats in the county final next Saturday. First, though, the third-seeded Lady Bulldogs (11-5 through Sunday) will have to get by No. 2 seed Vina (18-5) in next Friday night’s semifinals.

Belgreen beat the Lady Red Devils in last year’s county semis and then won 81-60 at Vina on December 8 of this season. The two teams are scheduled to meet again at Belgreen on Tuesday of this week, and they’ll battle next Friday for a berth in the county finals.

Merely reaching Saturday night’s championship game would be a landmark achievement for the Lady Red Devils, who have revived the program to the tune of a 40-14 record since the start of last season. Winning the county title would be nothing short of epic.

“That would be big,” head coach Richie Hester said. “The whole thing when we started this winning was to get Vina basketball back to being a championship program again like it was years ago. That’s our goal. Vina has won state championships in the past. I remember them winning the county back in the ‘80s and making it to the final in the ‘90s.

“This is a good group of girls we have now. They’re a good bunch of kids, athletically and otherwise. Their goal is to put Vina basketball on the map.”

The Lady Red Devils, who through Sunday were scoring a county-best 67.9 points per game, will aim to shoot their way to a title next week at Belgreen. Senior guard Abby Hester (17.6 points per game), sophomore guard Kaitlyn King (13.9 points per game) and junior forward Emma Humphres (11.5 points per game) have combined to make 173 threes on the season—an average of nearly eight per contest.

“We’ll definitely have to defend the three-point line,” said Green, whose team held the Lady Devils to just three made threes through the first three quarters of its blowout win at Vina in early December. “They can all shoot it. And we’ll have to box out and do a good job getting those long rebounds. The first time we played them, we pressured the ball pretty good, and we guarded the three-point line. For about half the game or maybe three quarters, we rebounded the ball well.”

Green has made rebounding an emphasis for the Lady Bulldogs all season long. They’re plenty capable in their own right of getting hot from the perimeter, with veterans guards Gabbie Moore (9.5 points per game through Sunday, with 22 made threes) and Jasmine Martin (7.4 points per game, 24 made threes) leading the way and sophomores Gracie Dempsey (6.5 points per game) and Autumn Bragwell (13 threes made in a reserve role) also contributing.

Belgreen has good balance, with freshman Emma Dempsey (the team’s leading scorer at 10.4 points per game) and sophomores Ansley Tate (7.2 points per game) and Katie Dempsey (6.8 points per game) all capable of having big games in the paint. The Lady Bulldogs will be a tough test for Vina in next Friday’s semifinals, but Hester is hopeful that his team will rise to the challenge this time around.

“We probably played our worst basketball of the season last year right around the county tournament,” he said. “We picked back up and played better the last two weeks of the season, but we were playing terrible at the county tournament. This year, I’m hoping we don’t play that kind of ball again.

“I feel like we’re playing well. We’ve got Belgreen on Tuesday and Belgreen again in the county next week. Right now, it’s all about beating Belgreen. Our girls wanted to come up here and practice [on Sunday], because they’re focused on doing that. If they beat us Tuesday, we’re gonna come back out and do everything we can to beat them at the county.”

If the Lady Bulldogs survive their semifinal meeting with Vina, Green will be back in a familiar setting—the county championship game. The opponent, however, is likely to be different, though it would still require an upset for Belgreen to deliver Green his first-ever county title as a varsity girls head coach.

“Our girls this year are capable,” he said. “We’re in that two-three game again, and if we’re able to take care of business against Vina, we’ll more than likely get Phil Campbell in the championship game. We know what we’d have to do in that one. We’d have a game plan. It would just come down to whether or not we could execute it.”

The varsity girls county final is set for next Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. The first varsity girls game of the tournament will tip at 5 p.m. next Tuesday, with first-year head coach Sonya Marks and Red Bay taking on Tharptown (7-8 through Sunday). The Lady Wildcats are led by a pair of sophomores in post player Brooke Daily (10.5 points per game on the season) and point guard Shaylee Wieting (10.0 points per game).

Wieting did not play in the first meeting between the two teams, won by Red Bay 46-35 in late November. Next Tuesday’s winner will advance to face top-seeded Phil Campbell in Thursday’s semifinals.

The Lady Bobcats have already beaten Tharptown by 50 and routed Red Bay twice, but neither Thomas nor his players will be counting their chickens next week.

“Our girls know we’re the favorite, because they know we’ve beaten all the county teams we’ve played so far,” Thomas said. “But it gets tough trying to beat the same teams two or three times. The first time you face somebody, you can kind of just go out there and play your game. The next time, they know a little more about you and what you like to do and what type of players you have. You might have to make some adjustments.”

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