CLEVELAND, Tenn. – It was already obvious that Ooltewah’s Owls and Bradley Central’s state-ranked Bearettes, would be the No. 1 seeds for next week’s District 5-AAA high school basketball tournament at Bradley Central High School.
Everything else was cleared up when the district’s boys and girls coaches met Wednesday morning at the Mountain View Inn to iron out the details for the six-day tourney that begins on Feb.
The Bearettes (27-1) are odds-on favorites to win their second straight district title.
It’s less clear in the boys’ bracket, where the Owls first have to get past the Rhea County (14-10)-McMinn County (14-12) winner in the semifinals and then most likely will have to contend with either No. 2 seed Bradley Central (22-5) or No. 3 Cleveland (13-8) for the championship.
“We won the regular season and that’s all good stuff,” Ooltewah coach Jesse Nayadley said, “but it’s crunch time now.”
The Owls survived a battle royal on Tuesday night, beating homestanding McMinn County, 71-70, to claim the regular-season title and No. 1 tournament seed.
Ooltewah (23-3) probably feels a little bit less pressured after Tuesday’s win because the title also included a first-round bye into the semifinals and an automatic berth in the region tournament.
The Owls, 14-1 since a 56-51 loss to Tyner in the pre-Christmas Best of Preps tournament, survived a severe test of ettle in last year’s district tourney before hauling off the winner’s hardware.
“We beat Bradley in the semifinals, and it was a nail-biter,” Nayadley said. “I think we won by one point. Then, we played McMinn in the championship game and it went four overtimes. It’s never easy because teams are so equal. So, it should be exciting again this year.”
In first-round games on Wednesday, Feb. 15, the Soddy-Daisy (11-13) girls play No. 2 seed Cleveland at 6 p.m. and Bradley’s Bears take on Walker Valley (9-15) at 7:30 p.m. in Jim Smiddy Arena.
On Feb. 16, McMinn County (10-16) plays Rhea County (11-17) in a 6 p.m. girls game and Cleveland’s Blue Raiders (13-8) square off against Soddy-Daisy (8-15) at 7:30 p.m.
On Feb. 17, the Ooltewah Lady Owls (14-10) meet the Walker Valley (9-15) girls at 6 p.m. and McMinn County battles Rhea County at 7:30 p.m.
Semifinals for boys and girls are scheduled on Feb. 18. The girls championship game is set for Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. The boys title game will be played Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Each of those games will be preceded by a third-place matchup.
The top four teams advance to the region tournament.
Of major concern to coaches, especially the top seeds, is the long layoff between the regular season and when they’ll next take the floor.
“I’m not particularly excited about the layoff,” Bradley Central coach Jason Reuter said. “The tournament starts on the 15th and we don’t play until the 18th, so that’s a long time off. We have to deal with it and I wouldn’t change places with anybody else.”
Teams aren’t allowed to scrimmage other teams during the down time. They can, however, go against other in-school squads.
“We might go against our freshman boys a couple of times,” said Reuter, who is 54-7 in two seasons directing the Bearettes.
Following Tuesday’s hard-earned victory over McMinn County, Nayadley was still trying to figure out how he would handle the time away from competition.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “We talked about that after the game. Somehow we have to stay focused, keep our energy up and go hard. We practice hard, but it’s still practice.
“We’ll probably go hard one day, get off our legs one day, do a lot of shooting the next and then go back at it hard. We’ll try to simulate game stuff as best we can, but there’s no way you can simulate the game we just played. You just can’t.”
For the Owls’ Jervon Johnson, who had 25 points against the Cherokees, it was important that the team played with a hard-nosed attitude in the regular-season finale before a hostile crowd in Athens, Tenn.
One of the keys to the victory was Ooltewah hitting six straight free throws down the stretch when McMinn County took its chances by fouling.
“We have to do that,” he said. “We do a lot of free throws in practice, especially when we’re tired. We run and then do free throws.”
Johnson converted a three-point play and made two more free throws in the last 26.8 seconds. The Owls went 17-for-23 from the line in the game.
Nayadley was impressed by his team’s response, especially in the final 3 minutes and 40 seconds against the Cherokees.
“Early in the year we were battling mental toughness,” he said. “I think over the last couple of weeks we’re doing OK. We go to Cleveland and get a tough win. We come up here (McMinn County) and get a tough win. So, we’re showing some intensity and mental toughness, and we have to keep it going. Those are qualities you’ve got to have if you’re going to make a (postseason) run.”
Bradley Central’s girls know all about making deep runs toward its ultimate goal.
The Bearettes claimed state championships in 1962, 1970, 1973, 1975 and 1976. Bradley went 36-0 in 1975 and ’76, part of a 90-game winning streak during the 1974-77 campaigns.
So, the Bearettes always figure to be in the title hunt.
“When the season started, did we expect to win the district? Yes,” said Reuter answering a question with a few of his own. “Did we expect to win a high percentage of our games? Yes. Did I know we were going 27-1? No. There’s no way to predict that.
“We were coming off a 27-6 year, won the district tournament, won the region tournament and had every player back from that team, so our expectations were very, very high. I don’t know that we’ve exceeded any expectations. We’re ranked fifth in the state and lost one game (the lone loss was a 53-33 setback against Girls Preparatory School in Bradley’s own Thanksgiving tournament). That’s an accumulation of a lot of years of hard work.”
Reuter said the Bearettes are riding a 22-game winning streak –longest since the 1993-94 – heading into the district tournament, and have played confidently throughout the season, despite the bulls-eye on their backs every night they play.
“These are 16- and 17-year-old kids,” he said, “but they’re relaxed and they’re loose. We’ll be picked to win the district tournament and the region tournament. There are a lot of people who get picked to do that, but they don’t win the tournaments.
“If we play up to our abilities, we’ll be in fine shape.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)