While the Lady Bobcats started the season hot and remained that way all the way through to this week’s Class 2A state semifinals at Birmingham’s BJCC Arena, the Purple Devils got off to a slow start on their way to the 1A boys state semifinals. Even with only six losses for the year, Ragland coach Andy Eden said his team could have played better at the beginning of the year.
“I don’t know if it was the maturity or the comfort, but we played in the Thanksgiving tournament in Haleyville even though I usually don’t like to because of football,” Eden said. “And we hadn’t practiced but about three times.”
In that tournament, Ragland started its season with a loss to Class 1A Parrish before winning its next two games. As the season progressed, the Purple Devils added a loss here and there, but nothing to raise any eyebrows.
But as the 2013 calendar year started, Ragland lost to 5A Mortimer Jordan 65-57 on Jan. 3 and 4A Corner 53-43 two days later. After that, the losses stopped.
“We went from losing those two ballgames to winning the rest of them,” Eden said. “I don’t know that it just didn’t take us until after Christmas to really come to together as a team. After that two-game stretch, we went to our county tournament and won it for the first time in 17 years.”
Riding a 14-game winning streak into today’s game against Brantley (20-5) at 4:30 p.m., Ragland (27-6) has been led by Cody Jones, who scored 37 points against Skyline in the Northeast Regional final, and Jimmy Brock. Junior Kijana Lindsey is also a large contributor.
“There are seven seniors on this team, and they were in first grade when I got here, so they’ve been together all that length of time,” Eden said. “They were a special group in junior high, winning the county tournament in junior varsity and on B-team. They’ve came up together, and we’ve even got kids that don’t start that are leaders.”
Looking at today’s matchup with Brantley, Eden said he is concerned with the size of the Bulldogs. Brantley has seven players standing 6-foot-1 or taller, including an inside game that features 6-4 Anpherne Canty, 6-4 Stefan King and 6-3 Taylor Driggers. The Bulldogs also have son of former Auburn great Wesley Person, a junior who also is named Wesley.
“The last time I think Ragland was in the Final Four was over 20 years ago,” Eden said. “I guess also in every sport we’ve been close, and I think this says a lot about the guys. I think they really wanted to get over the hump and get to that championship level, but, of course, we still have work to do in Birmingham.”
As opposed to Ragland’s slow start, Woodland girls rolled on their way to the 2A semifinals. The Lady Bobcats’ last time to make it this far was 2011 when they got to the state finals before losing.
Woodland (32-2) has lost only to Class 5A semifinalist Brewer and Belmont (Miss.) High.
“The team chemistry amongst them, knowing where everyone is going to be and playing together so long, they know each other and what each other are going to do,” Woodland coach Larry Strain said. “Being able to use that in a game is huge for us.”
He said starters Leah Strain, Shanna Strain, Amy Strain, Shayln Strain and Jaide Walker have played together since about the third grade. They have helped form what Strain calls the “nucleus” of the team.
“When I say the nucleus, I mean there are about five of them, my five starters, that have been playing together that long,” Strain said. “It goes back to grammar school, but with those five, there are two or three that have come along. So that makes six, seven or eight that have been playing with us since seventh grade.”
After Woodland’s first-round regional win over North Sand Mountain, Leah Strain expressed nerves before the contest, which came down almost to the wire, with Woodland winning 63-53. Larry Strain said Sunday that it wasn’t nerves about the game itself as much as the Lady Bobcats trying to live up to expectations.
“Back when they were all ninth-graders, except Amy, people were questioning me of why we didn’t make it years before that,” Strain said. “I had Courtney, my oldest daughter, when Leah, Shanna, Shayln and Jaide were seventh-graders, and they were starting and playing with us then as seventh-graders. The deal was I thought I got a group of young ladies that played hard and had played together for a long time, but it’s also hard for seventh-graders to compete against seniors.
“They were not mature enough at that time. Now, this is five years in a row that we’ve won over 30 ballgames.”
However, with Amy being a senior and the rest juniors, it’s starting to come together for Woodland, which won the Northeast Regional by defeating Lanett 69-43 on Thursday. The following day, Strain took a road trip to see the Central Regional, which Prattville Christian won, and the South Regional, which Providence Christian won.
Providence Christian (27-3) will face Woodland today at 9 a.m. at the BJCC Arena.
“They’ve got two really good players with one being the coach’s daughter. … They’re really athletic, really quick and get up and down the floor well with the basketball,” Strain said. “They’re a lot like us in some respects. It helps me a little to see my opponent, but it really doesn’t do justice until the game begins.”
Now with Woodland back on the big stage, the pressure that was regionals has shifted, and the Bobcats have a chance to avenge the way the season ended two years ago.
“This is something they’ve been working for all year or since 2011,” Strain said. “I think we have confidence since we’ve won our regional, but we just want to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do and play how we’re supposed to play when it matters. And right now is when it matters.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.