By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
With Holly Pond, Cold Springs, Cullman and Good Hope all routinely in the mix for regional and state titles on the girls’ side of prep hoops, most in Cullman County are accustomed to seeing high-class basketball come February and the start of the Northwest Regional Tournament at Wallace State.
Throw in five of the six No. 1 ranked girls teams in the state and it gets downright phenomenal.
Twenty-four girls teams will take the floor of Wallace State’s Tom Drake Coliseum starting Tuesday, but only six will earn berths to the coveted Final 48 Tournament in Birmingham.
The annual event will begin with Class 6A and 1A, followed by 5A and 2A on Wednesday and 3A and 4A on Thursday. The championship matchups are slated for Friday and Saturday.
Here’s a quick glance at the field:
% No. 1 Sparkman (30-2) vs. Hoover (17-13), Tuesday at 9 a.m.
% Bessemer City (14-6) vs. Austin (24-10), Tuesday at noon
% Sparkman: It’s been another banner year for the Senators. They’ve won at least 15 contests by 20-plus points in their blistering 2013-14 campaign. Sparkman — paced by star senior Alexis Jennings — is making its 11th straight regional appearance. The Senators fell to Hoover in the 2013 regional finale 47-33 — their only loss of the season.
% Hoover: The two-time defending 6A state champions are back and looking to make it a three-peat. The Bucs won four in a row to close the season and build some momentum. However, they will be without show-stopping center Marqu’es Webb, who has since moved on to Vanderbilt.
% Bessemer City: The Tigers turned a mediocre season into something positive late with an area tournament crown and a 54-42 sub-regional win over Jackson-Olin to qualify for a spot in the Northwest Regionals.
% Austin: The Black Bears came on strong toward the end of the regular season, parlaying that success into an area tourney crown with a 45-31 win over James Clemens and an upset over No. 4 Hazel Green 41-31 to pave its way to Wallace State.
% Pleasant Grove (23-7) vs. East Limestone (26-7), Wednesday at 9 a.m.
% Cullman (19-10) vs. No. 1 Wenonah (23-7), Wednesday at noon
% Pleasant Grove: The Spartans opened the season winning 11 of their first 12 contests. They bounced back from a 76-54 loss to Wenonah in the Area 13 Tournament final with a sound thumping of Hayden (76-58) last Friday to grab its spot in the tournament.
% East Limestone: Brennan Crabtree and Rachael Diamond have been a dangerous tandem this year for the Indians. The two regularly score 20-plus points a game in wins and aren’t too shabby in losses, either. East enters Wednesday as winners of 12 of its past 14 games.
% Cullman: Jonathan Hayes and Co. are making their third regional appearance in the past four seasons. The Bearcats upended Muscle Shoals 53-52 on the road to earn their berth.
Baylee Johnson is an All-State caliber guard who can drop a 30-spot on any given night. However, role players like Hayden Short, Oakleigh White and Christina Skinner — who had 27 versus the Trojans — can also be dangerous for the Black and Gold.
% Wenonah: The prohibitive favorite entering Wednesday’s opening round is without a doubt the top-ranked Dragons, who won their last three games by an average of 31 points. They’re a dynamite defensive squad, too, holding 14 of their opponents to less than 40 points in blowout wins.
% Locust Fork (18-9) vs. No. 5 Priceville (26-4), Thursday at 3 p.m.
% No. 1 Oneonta (29-6) vs. Rogers (17-15), Thursday at 6 p.m.
% Locust Fork: The Hornets just missed out on an area title in a 45-43 loss to Oneonta. However, they rebounded quite nicely with a bruising 61-44 victory over J.O. Johnson. They also won eight of their last 11 games, with all three L’s to Oneonta.
% Priceville: Winners of six straight and 20 of 22, the Dawgs come into the Northwest Regional riding plenty of momentum. Priceville punctuated its turnaround season with a trio of laughable wins over Haleyville, East Lawrence and Central.
% Oneonta: Last year’s 4A state champions haven’t missed a beat in their follow-up season. The Redskins are, once again, back in Tom Drake Coliseum to defend their crown. Coach Amber Deline’s squad is a defensive nightmare for opposing teams, showcased in its 81-38 victory over Ardmore in the sub-regional round.
% Rogers: The Pirates capped off its run to regionals with a big Area 16 Tournament title and a razor-thin 55-53 triumph against East Lawrence. Rogers won nine of its final 14 games down the stretch.
% No. 9 Madison Academy (25-9) vs. No. 5 Winfield (26-2), Thursday at 9 a.m.
% Good Hope (20-11) vs. No. 1 Lauderdale County (34-0), Thursday at noon
% Madison Academy: The 2011 3A state champions no doubt want make it back to Birmingham.
They are off to a good start in that regard, too.
Madison Academy cruised to an area crown with a pair of 37-point wins over Westminster Christian and West Morgan before ousting Mars Hill Bible by 20 in the sub-regional round. The Mustangs are a perennial “tough schedule” team, so that could help them as they prepare for this week’s matchups. Madison Academy split its season series with Holly Pond.
% Winfield: The Lady Pirates are hoping for a better semifinal showing than they've been able to muster the last three seasons. Tough draws are mostly to blame, however, with Lauderdale County (twice) and Madison Academy keeping Winfield from advancing in each instance. The Pirates — who've only lost to Cordova and 5A Muscle Shoals, both by six points or less — beat Danville 60-48 in Saturday's sub-regional. Katelyn Kostelc (26 points), Micaela Beck (15) and Barrett Ernest (10) accounted for almost all of the scoring.
% Good Hope: No Nina Mills? No Kayla Tillman? No problem.
The Raiders are back in the regional tournament for the ninth time in the past 13 seasons, thanks in part to a well-balanced squad that can flat out play defense.
Seniors Kacy Thomas, Kayla Scott and Katelyn Bishops score and provide key leadership, while Celest Whisenant and Kaylee Maddox have also played big roles in Good Hope’s success.
Coach Michael Oldcare’s squad grabbed its berth with a no-nonsense home win versus Hamilton, preceeded by a defensive gem against Danville.
% Lauderdale County: Back-to-back 3A state titles certainly haven’t bred any complacency for Brant Llewellyn’s program.
In fact, it seems to have made the Tigers better than ever.
Consider this fact — Lauderdale County has won all but two of its 34 games by at least 15 points. The closest its came to losing was a two-point affair to Woodland — the defending 2A girl title holders — back in December.
The Tigers eased into Tom Drake Coliseum with a 79-30 win over West Morgan. They’re riding a 38-game run. Lauderdale County edged Holly Pond in the 2013 state final.
% No. 3 Cold Springs (27-6) vs. No. 5 Tanner (19-7), Wednesday at 3 p.m.
% Sulligent (18-7) vs. No. 7 Red Bay (29-3), Wednesday at 6 p.m.
% Cold Springs: Tammy West and the Blue and Gold have just about made Wallace State a second home in February. They’ve now made 11 straight regional tournaments following a ho-hum area crown and 78-20 sub-regional win over Vincent. In the last two seasons, the Eagles have come up short in their bid for the state tournament with losses to the Rattlers. Seniors Haley Freeman and Chloe Harbison have stepped up in the clutch for Cold Springs this season, while Caitlyn Hall has been dominant in the post. Bailey West isn’t to be overlooked, either.
% Tanner: Last year’s Northwest Regional champion has returned to Tom Drake Coliseum following a dominant game and 62-26 triumph over Colbert Heights. The Lady Rattlers are a tough, highly skilled rebounding squad — using those coveted attributes to make the Final 48 Tournament a season ago.
% Sulligent: After losing in their area finale to Cold Springs, the Blue Devils picked up their slack with a 54-37 hammering of Fultondale on Friday.
% Red Bay: At 29-3, the Tigers enter Thursday’s play with all the confidence in the world. With their slow-it-down, corners 0, Red Bay stifles its opponents on defense before running them through the gauntlet on the other end of the floor. The Tigers have won 19 of 20, including a regional-clinching 52-41 victory against Lexington.
% Falkville (19-7) vs. No. 8 Tharptown (20-8), Tuesday at 3 p.m.
% No. 10 Lynn (26-2) vs. No. 1 Covenant Christian, Tuesday at 6 p.m.
% Falkville: The Blue Devils have quietly enjoyed a good season. Falkville picked up an easy area crown before destroying its sub-regional opponent, Brilliant, by 32 points at home.
% Tharptown: The Wildcats have no issue putting up points, as they usually eclipse the 60-point mark with little trouble at all over their 20 wins.
Tharptown easily dispatched R.A. Hubbard — last year’s Northwest Regional champion — 70-54 to earn a berth in this year’s big showdown at Tom Drake Coliseum.
% Lynn: Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! The latter is back and ready to defend their regional title from a season ago. The Bears have only lost two games this season by a combined nine points. Lynn has held 23 of their opponents under 30 points, including Friday’s 43-37 sub-regional victory.
% Covenant Christian: Tuscumbia’s finest — the No. 1 Eagles — enter Tuesday’s matchup ready to do some serious damage.
They’ve won 15 straight — all by double digits. However, the only loss was to Tharptown, a potential finale opponent.
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.