Third season the charm as the Lady Wildcats make school history with sub-region berth
THARPTOWN – Before the start of the season, Tharptown varsity girls basketball coach Chad Green hoped the AHSAA realignment would benefit his team.
Last season the Lady Wildcats competed in an area featuring Hazlewood, one of the premier girls programs in northern Alabama, and R.A. Hubbard, another strong team.
With Tharptown competing in the sub-regional round of the playoffs this season, it looks like the past competition paid off.
Green didn't want to rely solely on the past to help his team, so he challenged them throughout the season.
"We played a tough schedule this year," Green said. "We went to the Russellville Tournament at the first of the year. We lost both games, but we knew those games would prepare us for the season and the playoffs."
The Lady Wildcats used that experience to build a strong season and earn the second seed in the Class 1A, Area 15 Tournament. They defeated Speake, one of the preseason favorites to win the area title, in the semifinals to clinch Tharptown's first trip to the sub-regional round.
The Lady Wildcats played at Hazlewood last night but the game was concluded too late for today's edition of The Franklin County Times.
The win against Speake set up a finals showdown with county rival Belgreen, which defeated Tharptown twice during the regular season.
Senior Laken Barnett said the Lady Wildcats were on a mission against Belgreen.
"We were trying to give them a good game," Barnett said. "We haven't ever played our best when we played them. We wanted to play our best and show them who we really were."
Although Belgreen prevailed in the end, Tharptown took the Lady Bulldogs to two overtimes and only lost by three points.
Another senior, Hollie Hines, helped push the game to the first overtime when she hit a pair of free throws with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game.
Hines, who has scored more than 1,000 points during her career with the Lady Wildcats, is also one of the team's top rebounders.
"She is a beast down low," Green said. "One coach called her an Amazon woman – we call her our bruiser."
Hines said she doesn't worry about her numbers as long as Tharptown is earning victories. She also thinks the game against Belgreen sent a message to other teams the Lady Wildcats will face during the playoffs.
"If we play hard Thursday night, we can come home with a win," Hines said. "Anybody is beatable."
Green thought the Lady Wildcats had a good chance at beating Hazlewood because Tharptown is playing its best basketball of the season right now. He also likes the Lady Wildcats chances if they do upset third-ranked Hazlewood.
"At Wallace State we will likely face familiar opponents – Belgreen, Hackleburg and Hubbertville," Green said. "We've played almost all of them during the regular season so we know what they are going to do."
Part of this season's success can be attributed to the team coming together and gaining confidence in each other.
Senior Lauren Scott said the squad has gelled this year and is playing more like a team.
"I think we realized we can do it," Scott said. "In past years we haven't been so confident and really believed in ourselves."
Green agrees, saying he has seen quite a change during the last few seasons. He said two years ago the team was getting its feet wet and last year they were still learning.
"This year you can see the girls on the bench cheering for the other girls and standing up giving them high fives as they are coming off the court," Green said.
While the team chemistry has helped, Green said having each player fulfill her role is why Tharptown has gone this far.
"It can't be all superstars and all-stars, you have to have some girls take charges and step in there on the boards," Green said. "You have to have everybody do their job to be a successful team."
Green said the players coming off the bench have been very good at fulfilling their roles this season. He said the bench players are not the same type of player they are replacing, but they do their job.
"Elly (Valdez) isn't going to come in and score 25 points, but she is going to hound you defensively all over the court," Green said.
While the seniors have worked hard to get the Lady Wildcats where they are today, the juniors are dedicated to continue building a strong tradition for girls basketball at Tharptown.
"(The seniors) have taught us how to work together as a team," said Chelsea McCluskey, one of the Lady Wildcats leading scorers.
While the future looks bright for the Lady Wildcats, it is this team that made history by becoming the first squad at Tharptown to reach the sub-regional round of the playoffs.
Senior Gaby Gomez thinks the squad's sense of team and its hard work are what she will remember when she thinks of this season.
"Everybody gets along and plays hard," Gomez said. "They try their best on the court and try to prove everybody is wrong to think we can't make it."