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Teams it’s time to keep an eye on

By now, it would be hard to pay any attention to Black Belt hoops and not know about programs like the R.C. Hatch boys (only the state’s winningest program ever), the Sumter County boys (back-to-back 3A champs), or the Demopolis girls (back-to-back Final Four runs).

And even if you don’t stay on top of every little score, you’ve probably heard about the Greene County boys (the defending 4A champs), R.C. Hatch girls (currently second in 2A), or any of the teams at Warrior or MMI (all of whom are ranked except for the Lady Braves, who won a title as recently as 2004). And even if they aren’t quite the powerhouses this season they have been in the past, Livingston’s and Francis Marion’s boys can point to a whole ceiling full of banners that can attest their championship pedigree.

But there’s a number of teams across the area that aren’t ranked, that don’t have a Sumter’s or a Marion’s or a Hatch’s tradition, but are nonetheless playing like the kind of team that could put together a run to Birmingham next month. These are the Black Belt’s “under the radar” teams, the schools that bear close watching as the season winds towards the playoffs:

Demopolis’s boys: I know, I know, they’re not exactly “under the radar” when they get more coverage in these pages than any other team.

But what that coverage is starting to point to is that Demopolis might be Area 8’s biggest challenger to favored Greene County. Since a season-opening loss to Francis Marion played without Demopolis’s best inside player, sophomore forward Casey Cantey, the Tigers have reeled off 9 wins in 10 games, including road wins over Marion and Greensboro, a home win over Livingston, and a comfortable sweep of a solid John Essex squad.

How? First and foremost with a suffocating, sticky-fingered defense led by senior guards Dontrell Miller and Willie Blount that thrives off of turnovers and fast breaks. Only once this season have the Tigers allowed an opponent to score break 50 points in regulation. While Demopolis has struggled at times in the half-court set, the Tigers have made up for it with Cantey’s consistent finishing down low and plenty of fast breaks.

As coach Jesse Bell has grown comfortable with his rotation, Demopolis has also dramatically improved. Since a surprise loss on the road to Sunshine Dec. 27, the Tigers have gone 4-0 while winning by an average of 20 points a game.

But exactly how close are the Tigers to the big boys of 4A? We’ll find out over the next week-and-a-half, when they face Greene County and Livingston on the road and Greensboro (Tuesday night after press deadline) and Choctaw County at home. Take three of those four, and Demopolis fans can start taking a possible trip to regionals seriously.

Greensboro’s girls: 2005 was the Lady Raiders’ first regional berth in several years, but don’t expect another drought. None of the Greensboro’s Area 6 foes have come even close to challenging them, and in their home gym the Lady Raiders will be very difficult to beat in the sub-regional round.

Greensboro’s strength has been a balanced attack that could feature any of a half-dozen players (Shandrille Tabb, Kara Johnson, Sabrina Hurns, Brittney Skipper, Vanessa Rhodes, or Jacques Winn) as high scorer on any given night. The Lady Raiders got smoked by Demopolis in Mobile last season, but have split two razor-thin games with the Lady Tigers so far this season and could easily see them again at regionals.

Sunshine’s girls: 1A girls teams aren’t supposed to beat 4A girls’ teams, but that’s what the Tigers from Newbern have done already twice this season, defeating Greene County on a neutral court in Greensboro a week after taking down Demopolis at home.

The 1999 state champions came as close as you could come to returning to Birmingham last season, falling in the regional finals 29-27 to Pleasant Home. With the hunger of that defeat for motivation and Francesca Bates and Shawna Myers each capable of scoring 20-plus points in any game they play, look for the tigers to be right back in the thick of things in Mobile again.

1A boys’ teams: Because the current AHSAA Class 1A playoff organization pairs teams from two predominantly Black Belt areas in the sub-regionals, the Times’ coverage area hasn’t had any problems finding 1A representation at regionals. The problem has been getting wins once those representatives get there: since Akron won the Southwest region in 2002, area 1A boys’ teams have gone 0-6 in Mobile.

But the odds overwhelmingly favor one or two area teams getting a crack at the powerhouses to the south (most notably two-time defending state champ J.F. Shields) again this season. Sunshine could be there–led by Royce Hamilton and Darmekis Lewis, the Tigers have defeated both Greensboro and Demopolis and will be especially tough if they earn the right to host the Area 8 tourney. John Essex could be there–the Hornets have an excellent floor leader in senior Keniote Phillips, toughness inside with Keith Collier, and can boast their own win over Greensboro (the Hornets have also split so far this season with Sunshine, with a rubber match still to come). Linden could be there–the Patriots have athleticism and talent to burn (there’s a reason they made the state quarters in football) and have made five consecutive trips to regionals (at least–the AHSAA website doesn’t keep records past 2001). And all of A.L. Johnson, Sweet Water, Marengo, and Akron have performances that would lead their supporters to think they could make noise in the area tournaments.

Shields will unquestionably enter regionals as the 1A favorite, but the ball is round and over 32 minutes, any number of area teams could make anything happen.

Francis Marion and Sumter County’s girls: Both these teams play in the long, long shadow cast by the boys’ programs, but both have the opportunity to make their own mark this season.

The Lady Wildcats spanked 5A Paul Bryant over the weekend and have rolled to a 12-2 record–only one loss more, it should be noted, than the top-ranked Wildcat boys-and behind Rekina Crawford, Tenesia Ruffin, and Porsha Johnson, more should be on the way. The Lady Rams have made major strides since a season-opening loss at Demopolis and recently both upset Greensboro and, powered by the dangerous Quineshia Arrington’s 28 points, gave 2A No. 2 R.C. Hatch all they wanted.

It won’t be easy for either team at the sub-regional level, where they could face one-time state power T.R. Miller or a strong Clarke County team. But it won’t be easy for those teams, either.