January 3, 2013

Winter heat

Mountaineers area’s best on court after fiery first half

By Chris Whitfield

— Some area high school students will return to class today for the second semester of their academic year.

For local prep basketball teams, the season’s biggest tests also remain.

Several area boys and girls programs have enjoyed strong first halves during the 2012-13 schedule, but North Murray’s boys stand out even in that top group with a 12-1 start in their first season under coach Tim Ellis. The Mountaineers are riding an 11-game winning streak that includes holiday tournament titles at their own Mistletoe Madness and LaFayette’s Comcast Christmas Classic.

North Murray beat Gilmer 54-40 and Dalton 56-43, respectively, for those titles before and after Christmas. Ellis believes the Mountaineers’ ability to win several times in the span of a few days bodes well for the postseason, starting with the Region 5-3A tournament next month. There, the Mountaineers will shoot for at least a top-four finish, which would grant them a second straight state tournament berth.

“That was one of the things I talked to the boys about, was how important it is to be in shape to win games in back-to-back-to-back nights,” Ellis said. “We played a lot of games over the holidays, but that will be a big benefit when you are looking at the playoffs, when you have to be able to bring your best game night after night to make state.”

This is just the third varsity season for North Murray. But with a core group of players who have been at least part-time starters since they were underclassmen, the Mountaineers were expected to be one of the area’s top teams this season, and they have not disappointed. Their only defeat was a last-second 69-67 loss to Class 6A’s Meadowcreek on Nov. 23 at the Southeast Thanksgiving Hoopfest.

Senior center Zach Vess — a two-time selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Basketball Team — is again the team’s leading scorer, but North Murray has proven to be much more than just Vess and Co. In Saturday’s win against Dalton, four different North Murray players scored in double figures.

“Our balance has been a big strength,” Ellis said. “We know people are going to try to take away Zach in the middle, and that means others are going to have to make shots to open things up. We’ve been able to do that.”

Seniors Austen Horn and Brady Swilling have taken on a big share of the scoring load, while Ellis credits point guard Zach Sanford, another senior, with making the biggest developmental leap this season.

Still, the good first half will be quickly forgotten if the Mountain-eers stumble now.

They’ll return to the fight for a strong seeding at the region tournament when Sub-region 5B-3A play resumes with Friday’s trip to Sonoraville.

While no other local team is as hot as North Murray’s boys, the Lady Mountaineers also had a good first half, as did the boys and girls squads at Dalton and Northwest Whitfield.

For Dalton’s boys, balance hasn’t been a problem during their 9-3 start, but consistency has. While Alex Bautista has been an offensive threat throughout the first half, the rest of the Catamounts’ offense has been fickle. In the loss to North Murray, Bautista and Brandon Painter combined for 34 points. The rest of the team scored just nine.

Dalton has capable scorers in Rico Mears and Robert Enck, but coach Mike Duffie said more consistency is needed.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting more people scoring,” Duffie said. “A lot of times, it seems like we are just waiting for Alex to do it. He can’t do it all the time.”

Along with Dalton, Northwest’s boys seem likely to be among the top teams in Sub-region 7B-4A as league play begins Friday. The Bruins are 10-3 and two of those losses — to Chattanooga Central and Heritage-Catoosa, another 7B-4A program — have been by three points.

Balanced scoring and defense have been the keys. Tanner Quarles, O’Shea Hill and Caleb Storey are all averaging in double digits, and the Bruins have held their opponents to fewer than 50 points six times.

But no matter what has happened in the past, the most important part of the season is still to come. Northwest girls coach Greg Brown knows that how a team plays against its league schedule is what matters most, and he no doubt hopes the Lady Bruins (9-5) understand that fact as well as he does.

“Once we get out of the break, that is when it really starts to matter,” Brown said. “We feel like we have gotten off to a good start on the year, and feel like we have gotten a good group ready for the region play. But what you have done before isn’t as important as what is ahead.”

The five losses the Lady Bruins have suffered were at the hands of three teams, none of them pushovers — three times to Gordon Lee, and once each to Calhoun and Tennessee’s Bradley Central.

Against Class 4A competition, Northwest’s girls have won all of their games by at least 20 points. After a 69-52 loss to Calhoun in their opener at the Comcast Christmas Classic last week, the Lady Bruins responded with a 73-22 win against Ridgeland and a 67-26 victory against Coosa to finish the tournament.

“Those losses have come against some pretty tough competition,” Brown said. “Hopefully, that will make us stronger down the road.”

The Lady Mountaineers’ 11-4 first half included a second-place finish at their own Mistletoe Madness tournament and a third-place showing in LaFayette. They’ve been led by power forward Erin Robinson and balance on the perimeter.

While Dalton’s girls are one of the few local squads to reach double-digit victories in the season’s first half — the Lady Cats are 10-4, including a win against North Murray — they were also among the coldest area teams just before Christmas. Only a rout of winless Coahulla Creek at the Mistletoe Madness tournament broke the Lady Cats’ three-game losing streak.

Murray County’s boys are 7-6 overall and 2-1 in Region 7-2A play, and they finished the first half by going 3-0 as the hosts of the Farm Bureau Christmas Classic. The Lady Indians are 5-8 overall, but 2-1 against region competition.

Southeast Whitfield’s girls have enjoyed a surprising first half a year after going 1-25. They’re 7-5 in their first season under coach Mike Durham and will begin region play Friday at Ridgeland. The Raiders are 1-12, with their only win coming against winless Coahulla Creek.

At Christian Heritage — which is in its first season of GHSA competition after five seasons in the GISA — the boys have been inconsistent in compiling a 4-3 mark, while the Lady Lions (3-9) have struggled. Both squads begin Sub-region 6A-A play Friday at Cartersville’s Excel Christian.