By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my — and Dragons and Jaguars and Pirates, too. The girls side of the bracket at the Northwest Regional Tournament will have it all, including two top-ranked teams in their respective classifications, two No. 2’s and a swarm of other top-10 squads.
Twenty-four schools will take the court at Wallace State’s Tom Drake Coliseum this week, but only six will leave with a coveted spot at the state tournament in Birmingham.
The annual event will begin today with 5A and 2A, followed by 6A and 1A on Wednesday. Classes 3A and 4A will wrap up the semifinal play on Thursday, with regional championship games scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
Here’s a quick glance at the field:
%No. 3 Hoover (24-4) vs. No. 10 Austin (23-7), Wednesday at 9 a.m.
% No. 1 Sparkman (32-0) vs. Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, Wednesday at noon
% Hoover: The Buccaneers have yet to be tested in the playoffs, but that could change in a hurry with the Tigers filling out a top-10 matchup. Marqu'es Webb, touting a 14-point average per game, has Hoover in position for a second straight title and third in four years.
% Austin: Tyra Johnson shook off a hard foul and sank the go-ahead free throw to help the Black Bears squeak by No. 5 Bob Jones 44-43 in overtime of a fierce sub-regional contest. The freshman, as well as senior guards Maegan Hamilton and Takisha Jordan, were critical in Austin advancing to the Northwest Regional for the first time in seven years.
% Sparkman: The Senators' key cog, 6-foot-2 junior Alexis Jennings, kept her squad's undefeated streak alive with 14- and 27-point outbursts in postseason victories over Bob Jones and James Clemens. Sparkman, playing at the Tom Drake Coliseum for a 10th consecutive year, is seeking its first regional title since 2007.
% Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa: Despite scoring just four points in the fourth quarter in a sub-regional battle with Minor, the Patriots held on for a 43-39 win, one game after a six-point triumph versus Northridge.Ambrica Johnson, who heads Hillcrest's offense, is fresh off a 27-point performance.
% No. 4 Wenonah (26-6) vs. Lawrence County (25-6), Tuesday at 9 a.m.
% No. 7 Fairfield (21-8) vs. Athens (16-14), Tuesday at noon
% Wenonah: The Dragons' boys are all the rage, but three double-digit scorers — Shauntece Caitlin, Aja Cumbie and Kaitlyn Rogers — make it difficult to overlook the school's ladies. Wenonah narrowly lost its area championship 54-52 to No. 7 Fairfield before moving on to Wallace with a 30-point blowout over Hayden.
% Lawrence County: The Red Devils sandwiched a 49-43 versus a tough Athens squad in the Area 16 championship with easy wins against Muscle Shoals and Hartselle to enter the Northwest Regional on a 13-game run. Rachel Childress has outplayed her freshman status, averaging 15-plus points a contest.
% Fairfield: After failing to advance to Birmingham last season for the first time since 2009, the Tigers are wanting to return to their winning ways. Ashley Rodgers, Kyla Brooks and Jayla Morrow all had at least 10 points in Fairfield's sub-regional rout of Mortimer Jordan.
% Athens: The Golden Eagles rebounded from a six-point loss to Lawrence County in the Area 16 title tilt with a narrow road victory over Cullman to punch their regional ticket. Behind the post presence of Alliyah Smith, Athens has been hot since a perfect three-game showing at the Tom Drake Coliseum for the Bearcats' inaugural Yule Tide Classic.
% J.O. Johnson (16-11) vs. West Limestone (21-9), Thursday at 9 a.m.
% No. 1 Oneonta (28-4) vs. Brooks (17-13), Thursday at noon
% J.O. Johnson: The Jaguars are taking on the Northwest Regional for the first time since they were reclassified into 4A. J.O. Johnson held on to beat Pope John Paul II Catholic and Locust Fork by four-point margins in its last two ballgames.
% West Limestone: The Wildcats' road to Wallace has been a walk in the park with comfortable wins against less-than-stellar foes Wilson, Central-Florence and Priceville. Autumn Bates is one of four seniors on the squad's roster.
% Oneonta: The state's top team comes in as the clear favorite to move right on to the Final Four. The Redskins limited St. Clair County to just nine points in a 60-point area-semifinal laugher. Oneonta's four losses came against 5A (Brewer) and 6A (Bob Jones and Austin) competition.
% Brooks: The Lions bounced back from a three-game losing streak to close out the regular season with convincing wins in all three playoff matchups. Erin Jewell and K'Maya Roach work together as a freshman-senior tandem averaging 11.4 and 8.8 points per game, respectively.
% No. 2 Lauderdale County (29-5) vs. Winfield (24-6), Thursday at 3 p.m.
% No. 3 Madison Academy (25-8) vs. No. 10 Danville (25-8), Thursday at 6 p.m.
% Lauderdale County: Almost all the key pieces of last year's state championship squad are heading back to Wallace after surviving an extremely tough postseason schedule that included area victories over No. 6 Deshler and No. 1 Mars Hill Bible. The Wallen triplets and Chatara Cox were responsible for knocking out Holly Pond in last year's regional final.
% Winfield: Joseph Wilson's Pirates have flown under the radar up to this late juncture in the season. The unranked squad will ride double-figure contributors Katelyn Kostelc and Allie Gilmer as it looks to shake up one of the toughest regional brackets in the state, regardless of classification or gender.
% Madison Academy: The Mustangs had to fight tooth and nail for their regional berth, just barely ousting top-ranked Mars Hill Bible 45-43 at the sub-regional level. Junior Sierra Jones' 14 points were tops for Madison Academy in the top-five showdown.
% Danville: Sophomore 6-footer Sydni Shelton gives the youthful Hawks a versatile threat in nearly every aspect of the game. Good Hope saw that first hand in a 44-42 loss in the Area 13 championship, as did Cordova in an effortless 59-38 sub-region win. Shelton poured in 16 points versus the Raiders.
% No. 5 Red Bay (27-3) vs. No. 7 Cold Springs (21-7), Tuesday at 3 p.m.
% Sulligent (20-10) vs. Tanner (13-15), Tuesday at 6 p.m.
% Red Bay: The Tigers haven't tasted defeat in 13 contests since Jan. 12. Only two teams have even been able to come within eight points over that time. The last was No. 4 Lexington in Monday's sub-regional battle versus the defending Northwest Regional champs.
% Cold Springs: The Eagles come into regional play having won nine of their last 11 games, including a three-game postseason stretch in which they’ve outscored opponents 221-91. Chloe Harbison and Caitlyn Hall spearhead a balanced offensive attack that can beat teams inside the paint or behind the arc. Coach Tammy West rotates up to 11 players throughout a game, so key reserves Keegan Johnson, McKinnley Davis and others could see quality minutes for Cold Springs.
% Sulligent: Three nights after getting spanked 79-45 by Cold Springs for the Area 14 crown, the Blue Devils put the pieces back together in time to make its way to the Tom Drake Coliseum with a 53-42 final over Altamont. Laura Ashley Dean's 17 points per game led Sulligent to a 20-win season.
% Tanner: The Rattlers can thank a horrible visit from the injury bug at the beginning of the year for their lousy record. All that matters now, though, is that they're still in contention for a state title, which they moved one step closer to earlier this postseason with a 40-38 upset versus Lexington.
% No. 2 R.A. Hubbard (19-5) vs. No. 9 Falkville (20-4), Wednesday at 3 p.m.
% No. 4 Lynn (29-1) vs. Shoals Christian (12-13), Wednesday at 6 p.m.
% R.A. Hubbard: It's hard to find a better scorer than the Chiefs' Alex Gholston, who signed a track scholarship with the University of Alabama just last week. Three of the squad's five losses this season have come to two other teams competing at the Northwest Regional — Lawrence County and Deshler.
% Falkville: The Blue Devils come in confident they can do some damage in their first-ever Northwest Regional appearance. Falkville crushed Marion County and Meek in its first and last games of the playoffs. It passed its only true test in the Area 14 final by dispatching Decatur Heritage 45-38.
% Lynn: Jacquline Dodd leads the Bears back to Wallace State for the fourth year in a row on the heels of a 20-game winning streak. The last team to beat Lynn was Good Hope back in mid-December. The Bears allowed only 35, 24 and 13 points in their three postseason games.
% Shoals Christian: The Flame weren't anything to write home about during the regular season. They've done what it takes to advance in the postseason, however, pulling off a massive upset of No. 3 Covenant Christian in the Area 16 semifinal and staving off Tharptown in a sub-regional contest.
% The Times’ sports writer Jake Winfrey and ASWA’s Justin Graves contributed to this report.