JACKSONVILLE — The Northeast Regional starts Thursday in Pete Mathews Coliseum, marking the last chance to see stars such as Alabama signee Diante Wood play in Calhoun County.
Oxford’s boys return, and so does Piedmont’s Tommy Lewis, one of the most consistent coaches in this tournament.
While the girls’ brackets are notable for teams that didn’t make, Alexandria, Jacksonville and Spring Garden did. Jacksonville’s girls and boys made it.
It’s a week of wall-to-wall basketball. Here are five fast facts about the regional:
1. Heart attack
It’s natural to wonder whether a rare close game against a 1A opponent means Sacred Heart’s boys are vulnerable. Spring Garden’s 50-49 loss to the Cardinals in an area final, which saw the Panthers miss on two possessions with a chance to take the lead, was stunning.
Still, Sacred Heart has Wood, who is surrounded by several good high school players. Point guard Quin Riggins has committed to Iowa Central.
The Cardinals answered their scare against Spring Garden with a 109-62 rout of Lindsey Lane in the subregional round.
Decatur Heritage and 6-foot-10 center Noah Boler likely await, assuming Sacred Heart gets to the regional final, but the three-time defending state champions are No. 1 until proven otherwise.
2. Back-to-back Jackets
Hard to believe, but Oxford’s boys have made the Northeast Regional just six times. When they made it last year, it broke a 19-year drought.
This year makes back-to-back regionals for the Yellow Jackets, and their regional appearances have come in clusters. They made it four times in five years between 1994 and 1998, including three in a row … 1996, 1997 and 1998.
There’s something about this Oxford team, which overcame Zondrick Garrett’s one-year hiatus for prep school, Antwon Fegans’ season-ending injury and Caden Higgins’ season-sapping illness to get back to Jacksonville. That Joel Van Meter guy can coach.
3. Speaking of coaching
Piedmont’s Tommy Lewis is ba’aack. The coach who picked up his 600th career victory last week has another Bulldogs team in Jacksonville, and this might have been his best work.
He replaced four senior starters. Cardavion Myers, who signed with Western Kentucky in football, chose to focus on indoor track and football preparations. Weston Kirk transferred, and Carl Myers, Cardavion’s brother, eased into basketball after a football injury.
Yet, Lewis has Piedmont in Jacksonville for the ninth time, all since 2008. They’re 8-5 with three regional titles.
4. County finalists MIA
The absence of both Calhoun County tournament girls finalists is stunning.
Anniston suffered an area-final upset to Handley, which doomed the Bulldogs to play their sub-regional game at Madison Academy. Winning the area tournament could have forestalled Anniston’s end until regional, at least.
County runner-up Oxford played on-point basketball in beating Jacksonville 43-41 in the county semifinals and losing 59-55 to Anniston in the final, but the Yellow Jackets lost their final five games.
The Northeast Regional came into being in 1994. The tournament will go/has gone without a Calhoun County girls finalist in 2018, 2010, 2005 and 1996.
5. Area in action
While the Calhoun County girls finalists didn’t make it, Jacksonville and Alexandria did. Spring Garden will make its 16th appearance and seek its 12th title.
Calhoun County standouts like Alexandria’s Brie Bradford and Jacksonville’s Kyra Williams, both seniors, will play on the regional stage with a chance to take it to Birmingham.
Spring Garden, which beat 4A power Anniston this season, can make another stop in Jacksonville, likely en route to Birmingham.