By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Holly Pond coach Mitch Morris had been trying to schedule at least one regular season game with Madison Academy for the past two or three years. Yet, for a number of various reasons, the marquee matchup never did quite pan out.
Fate almost brought the teams together at last season’s Final 48. It, too, just wasn’t to be, however, with the Broncos bowing out at the semifinal stage and the Mustangs going on to lift the Class 3A state championship.
But with both Green and White squads making matching appearances in Birmingham earlier this year, Holly Pond’s appeal factor finally caught the eye of the private school powerhouse. So much so, in fact, Madison Academy agreed to a home-and-home series with the Broncos for the 2013-14 campaign.
The Mustangs will host the first meeting on Friday and travel south to Felton Easterwood Gymnasium on Jan. 28.
“They’ve been at the top of 3A several years in several sports,” Morris said of Madison Academy, which has reeled in four of the state’s last eight boys basketball titles. “My thinking is, if we want to compete and win a state championship, we need to be able to beat the best and play against the best.”
Playing against the best is certainly nothing new for the No. 4 Mustangs. Outside of required area contests, they generally don’t stray from a schedule packed with talented 5A and 6A teams like Wenonah, Parker, Gadsden City, Albertville and Sparkman, among others.
Due to the extremely challenging slate, Madison Academy is off to a 10-9 start. It’s not the prettiest of records — especially compared to second-ranked Holly Pond’s 14-5 mark — but Morris doesn’t figure it’ll make his squad’s soon-to-be opponent any worse for the wear come playoff time.
“They have a really good coach,” Morris said, referring to Andy Blackston. “They play all these big schools, and he manages somehow to compete with them, even beat them sometimes. That prepares them for area and state tournament runs because they’ve faced tough competition all year long.”
As far as players go, it’s hard to find many better than sophomore superstar Joshua Langford. The 6-foot-6 Mustang averaged 23.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season while roping in Gatorade Alabama Boys Basketball Player of the Year honors, as well as his second straight 3A Player of the Year award from the Alabama Sports Writers Association.
Langford is far from Madison Academy’s only threat. Football phenom Kerryon Johnson, who Morris referred to as a “tremendous athlete,” has also taken his talents to the court this campaign.
The Broncos will counter with a big three — Colby Adams, Austin Smith and Gunter Morris — capable of running and gunning with almost anyone. Cody Jones has added another dimension to the Green and White’s game, as has Dauriel Harwood, a steady defender who’s able to contribute when needed on offense.
“For us, it’s kind of like a measuring stick,” Morris said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity of playing them. I just hope our guys are ready. I hope they go up there and aren’t intimidated. They shouldn’t be because they don’t have any giant guys. We had to face this 7-footer named Bawa (Muniro) several years ago when we were in their area.
“But we don’t have to worry about that. They’re normal size like us. I hope we go in with the right frame of mind, just compete and know we belong at this level of basketball.”
As primetime as the matchup appears to be for the boys, it might actually be a bit more intriguing on the girls’ side.
Holly Pond’s ladies are currently ranked fourth in 3A with an 18-2 record. The Mustangs, meanwhile, are 14-6 and No. 2 behind two-time, defending-champion Lauderdale County.
Before turning his full attention to Madison Academy, reigning 3A Coach of the Year Scott Adams doesn’t want to overlook the Broncos’ first two opponents of the week. The Green and White were slated to host West Point Monday and head to area-foe J.B. Pennington Tuesday.
Still, Adams could see why some folks would be tempted to look ahead.
“It’s been something I’ve used to talk to my girls about to keep them motivated for a long time,” the coach said. “Because if you can beat a Madison Academy, you feel like you can stack up against almost anyone.”
While setting their schedule, the Lady Mustangs made it known they were only interested in penciling opponents that could help them reach a singular goal — get to a level where they can dethrone Lauderdale County. Madison Academy, the 2011 state champs, lost a competitive contest to the Tigers in the Northwest Regional final February at Wallace State.
The Mustangs aren’t alone in their quest to take down the Tigers. That’s been Holly Pond’s mission, too, dating back to a heartbreaking 59-41 defeat in last season’s title tilt.
“Madison Academy and Lauderdale County are the two teams to beat in Class 3A, and they have been for some time,” Adams said. “That does make it exciting. If we were to make it (back to state), whether it’s them or Lauderdale County, it would give us a litle bit on insight on what we could do if we met up with them again.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at email@example.com.