(Story has been updated)
Once again District 5-AAA boys and girls basketball teams are chasing Bradley Central.
The Bears and Bearettes find themselves in the No. 1 slots for the tournament that is scheduled to start Wednesday at East Hamilton, weather permitting.
Bradley’s boys, who lost at Ooltewah, 75-58, on Monday night, will head into the tournament with 14-10 overall and 10-2 league records, having won eight of their last 10 games.
The Bearettes (20-5, 11-1) lost their first district game in three years on Dec. 3 when Walker Valley’s Lady Mustangs ended a 42-game league winning streak with a 45-38 victory. The Bearettes won the rematch convincingly, 58-41, at home on Jan. 17.
There are a few differences in this tournament for the Bradley teams.
First, Chuck Clark, long-time assistant coach, is now directing the Bears after Kent Smith stepped away for personal reasons after last season.
Second, Bearettes coach Jason Reuter believes the gap between the Bearettes and other top-tier teams has narrowed slightly, but Bradley’s perennial title contenders aren’t ready to concede anything to anybody.
Other than those two factors, Monday morning’s seeding meeting held at the Golden Corral on Gunbarrel Road in Chattanooga was pretty much routine, other than when discussions turned to weather.
The Bears and Bearettes both have byes into the tournament semifinals, but Clark isn’t about to change anything his team has been doing for months during the regular season.
“One is just a number,” he said. “All that got us is a bye. This district is so competitive it’s unreal. You can’t rest. Two weeks ago Soddy-Daisy beat Ooltewah and earlier in the year East Hamilton got Cleveland.”
With Monday’s win, Ooltewah (14-9, 9-3) has the No. 2 seed. Cleveland (15-7, 8-3) lost to Walker Valley (18-9, 7-5) and slipped to the No. 3 seed. Walker Valley is the No. 4 seed.
Soddy-Daisy (11-13, 3-9) is the fifth seed, East Hamilton (6-20, 3-9) is sixth and McMinn County (3-21, 2-10) is seventh.
“Bradley’s record earned them that No. 1 spot,” Ooltewah coach Andre Montgomery said. “They play really hard and any time you’ve got a team that plays hard they’ve got a chance to be right there at the top.”
The Owls play the Cherokees on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the lone boys’ game on the opening day schedule.
The Bears have the bye and won’t play until Saturday when they’ll take on the Walker Valley-Soddy-Daisy winner at 7:30 p.m.
Cleveland plays East Hamilton at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.
“We won a number of games this year when we made our own luck,” Clark said of the Bears. “You should be raising your level of play toward the end of the season. We’re going to keep plugging, doing the same things we’ve been doing and we’re going to emphasize the little things.”
Montgomery will lead the Owls into the tournament for the first time. He was elevated to full-time coaching status from a volunteer coach when long-time coach Jesse Nayadley was promoted to assistant principal and athletic director in the wake of an administration scandal earlier in the school year.
The Owls lost at Bradley Central, 68-62, on Dec. 13 and avenged the setback with Monday’s impressive win. The Owls have won five of their last six games, the only slip-up a 76-70 loss at Soddy-Daisy last week.
Ooltewah bounced back with a 67-57 win at Cleveland on Friday and closed the season out on Monday on Senior Night.
“We’ve been playing hard and playing well,” Montgomery said. “Earlier we were questioning our effort, but that’s not a question now. We’ve had good effort for the last six or seven ballgames. I’m feeling good about the way the guys are playing.”
Leading the way has been Ben Snider, one of the top players in the district.
Snider scored 28 points against Soddy-Daisy, 27 in the win over Cleveland and put up 21 against the Bears – all game-high totals (he shared that honor with Jaymcal Johnson against the Bears).
“It goes back to effort with Ben, just like the other guys,” Montgomery said. “He’s going after everything – loose balls, rebounds. We know he can score. Ben is trying to put it altogether because he realizes this is his last year with us. He’s really playing well.”
Reuter’s Bearettes have won 10 in a row, including eight district games. They have won their 11 district games by an average of 32.7 points.
In 2011-12 when the Bearettes went 12-0, their average margin of victory was 40.2 points.
“The gap has closed a little bit,” Reuter said. “Instead of winning by 30 points, we’re winning a few games by 15 or 16 points. I sense that two or three teams in our district feel like they are closer to us.
“I think we have to be very careful to not overlook anyone, not that I believe we ever have, because the margin of error is not as big this year.”
In their district wins this season, the smallest margin was 16 against Cleveland while the largest was a 74-19 thrashing of Ooltewah in December.
The Bearettes have made small changes in their style of play this season.
They’re not as aggressive with full-court defensive pressure, but Reuter still believes his team’s half-court defense may be as good as ever.
“You might beat my guards, but you still have to get past two six-foot Division I post players – Brooke Copeland (Florida) and Rebecca Reuter (Middle Tennessee),” the coach said.
But once Bradley, or any other team, is in elimination situations later in the postseason, there is one scenario to which Reuter pays special attention.
“There is no shot clock,” he said. “Teams have tried just about everything against us, sagging man defense, basically matchup zone type situations, and zones. The only thing they haven’t tried is to hold the ball on us. That’s always in the back of my mind and it’s something we’re working on. In our next practice we will devote 30 minutes to a team holding the ball.”
Reuter has a word of warning for teams that might use that tactic to shorten the game.
“If we get you in a half-court situation, we still can spread it out and trap you,” he said.
No matter the opposition strategy, Bradley’s goals remain the same.
“We want to win this district,” Reuter said. “We want to win the region and we want to get that sub-state game back at Jim Smiddy Arena. We would be the favorite coming out of this district and anything less will be a disappointment.”
Bradley’s girls are scheduled to play the Cleveland-Ooltewah winner on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in one semifinal matchup.
East Hamilton’s seventh-seeded Lady Hurricanes open the tournament against No. 2 seed McMinn County on Wednesday at 6 p.m. On Thursday, No. 6 Soddy-Daisy plays No. 3 Walker Valley.
It was snowing heavily when the coaches met, so discussions shifting to contingency plans in case schools are dismissed on Tuesday and/or Wednesday were appropriate. The snow had almost stopped when the meeting broke up.
Only Mother Nature knows if those plans will be needed.
If the snow and ice, which paralyzed the area two weeks ago, arrive as predicted the tournament schedule will be back up a day or two, depending entirely on if and for how long Hamilton County schools are closed.
East Hamilton has two gyms and can handle a backlogged schedule without much fuss, as it does annually with the prestigious Scenic City Showcase.
If the inclement weather doesn’t materialize, the tournament will begin Wednesday.
District 5-AAA Tournament Schedule
At East Hamilton High School
East Hamilton girls vs. McMinn County, 6 p.m.
Ooltewah boys vs. McMinn County, 7:30 p.m.
Walker Valley girls vs. Soddy-Daisy, 6 p.m.
Cleveland boys vs. East Hamilton, 7:30 p.m.
Cleveland girls vs. Ooltewah, 6 p.m.
Walker Valley boys vs. Soddy-Daisy, 7:30 p.m.
McMinn-East Hamilton girls winner vs. Walker Valley-Soddy-Daisy winner, 3 p.m.
Bradley Central girls vs. Cleveland-Ooltewah winner, 4:30
Ooltewah-McMinn boys winner vs. Cleveland-East Hamilton winner, 6 p.m.
Bradley Central boys vs. Walker Valley-Soddy-Daisy winner, 7:30 p.m.
Girls consolation game, 6 p.m.
Girls championship game, 7:30 p.m.
Boys consolation game, 6 p.m.
Boys championship game, 7:30 p.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)