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A look ahead at 2006 girls’ playoffs

Check your calendar: there’s only two days left before the five-team AHSAA girls’ tournaments tip off and the AISA tourneys are already underway.

So it’s high time to take a closer look–including possible sub-regional opponents–at those area tourneys, the first step on the road to Birmingham (or Montgomery). Schedule information is available in Thursday’s edition of the Times, and the Boys preview was published in yesterday’s edition.

But today, it’s the Girls’ turn (seeds in parentheses):

4A Area 5

Teams: Demopolis (1), Thomasville (2), Greene County (3), Livingston (4), Choctaw County (5)

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 1 (Escambia County, UMS-Wright, Gulf Shores, Jackson)

Outlook: Demopolis has owned this area for years now, and appears to be peaking at the right time: behind senior leaders Shawnese Armstead and Katerria Johnson, the Lady Tigers have won seven games in a row heading into their Friday night showdown with rival Greensboro. They will also have home-court advantage after winning the area outright with a 7-1 record.

But while it would be a massive upset if Demopolis failed to advance to the final (Livingston, with Shanika Maye, would pose more danger than Choctaw), the trophy isn’t theirs yet. The Lady Tigers fell on the road to Thomasville by a basket back on Dec. 9 before evening the series with a stifling defensive effort Jan. 6. Demopolis won both games against Greene County, but the teams’ meeting in Demopolis was a down-to-the-wire thriller in which Shaniece Cockrell and the visiting Lady Tigers grabbed a late lead before falling 49-45. Neither Thomasville nor Greene County will come to Demopolis intimidated by their hosts’ record, ranking, or previous titles.

On the flip side, they also won’t be able to sneak up on the Lady Tigers, either. After the Thomasville loss and the close call against Greene, Demopolis knows exactly the kind of effort they’ll have o put forth to beat either team should they meet in the final. The key for the Lady Tigers, as it has been all season, is the play of ball-handling guards Jasmine Simmons, Valissa Sams, and Shay Smith. If they can find Johnson and Kelli Johnson down low or get the ball to Armstead with space to penetrate, Demopolis will take the tournament crown and avoid the likely sub-regional trip to Mobile to face a tough UMS-Wright squad.

4A Area 6

Teams: Greensboro (1), Bibb County (2), Jemison (3), Dallas County (4).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 8 (Chelsea, Montevallo, Holt, Oak Grove)

Outlook: When they headed to Centreville to take on Bibb County Jan. 20, the Lady Raiders looked to be cruising comfortably through the area: they were 5-0 with every victory having come by at least a 15 point margin, and could boast having already defeated Demopolis twice and taking 2A No. 2 R.C. Hatch to the wire on their own court before falling by 2.

But the Lady Choctaws took the Lady Raiders by surprise and earned their biggest victory of the season, forcing Greensboro to win a coin flip to take home-court advantage for the area tournament (which they did). Thanks to that flip, Greensboro is still a heavy favorite to win the tourney. The Lady Raiders possess tremendous balance, frequently placing three, four, or even all five of their starters (Shandrille Tabb, Vanessa Rhodes, Brittney Skipper, Kara Johnson, and Jacques Winn) in double figures. They will have a very large and very vocal crowd behind them, and it remains unlikely that the Lady Choctaws will be able to walk into Greensboro’s gym and walk out with the area title.

But after the Jan. 20 game, it’s no longer a given that they won’t, either.

3A Area 6

Teams: Sumter County (1), Francis Marion (2), Aliceville (3), West Blocton (4).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 1 (Clarke County, T.R. Miller, W.S. Neal, Straughan)

Outlook: The Sumter County girls finished their run through Area 6 with the same record as the No. 1 Sumter boys: a perfect 6-0. But unlike the boys, who were never seriously challenged on their way to the top seed, the Lady ‘Cats had to fight tooth-and-nail to defeat Francis Marion in both meetings between the two. The Lady Rams feature one of the area’s best finishers around the basket in Quineshia Arrington and a solid outside shooter in Sierra Moore, and led the Lady Wildcats for much of their Jan. 21 game in York before faltering down the stretch.

So the Sumter girls aren’t the overwhelming favorite the boys are, but it will still be an upset if the Lady Rams (or possibly Aliceville) take the title. Center Rekina Crawford is simply dominant inside (she recorded 25 points and 25 rebounds in the second Marion game) and guards Tenesia Ruffin, Crystal Brown, and Nicole Ward are all capable of big offensive nights themselves.

Even with the area title in hand, neither Sumter nor Francis Marion will have an easy game to reach Mobile, as Area 1 features strong programs in both Clarke County and No. 8 T.R. Miller.

2A Area 6

Teams: R.C. Hatch (1), Keith (2), Marbury (3), Billingsley (4).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 8 (Altamont, Calera, Holy Family, Shades Mtn. Christian, Vincent)

Outlook: No girls’ team in the area enters their tournament more heavily favored than the Lady Bobcats. The state’s No. 2 team has size and rebounding in LaToria Paige and Ahjah Mitchell, speed and shooting in Sheleta Banks, and plenty of all of that in senior point guard Vinecia Dudley. The Keith Lady Bears aren’t a bad team, but they will be very, very hard-pressed to keep up with Hatch, especially in Uniontown.

1A Area 2

Teams: A.L. Johnson (1), Linden (2), Marengo (3), Sweet Water (4) and Coffeeville (5).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 8 (Sunshine, Akron, Carrolton, John Essex, ACA)

Outlook: A.L. Johnson, one of the area’s most successful girls’ programs is looking for its fourth regional berth in five years. As in 2005, Linden will be the 2-seed trying to spoil the party in Thomaston if they can get past Marengo’s Lady Panthers. The Lady Patriots nearly managed it last season, falling by three in the Area 2 finals, but as the Lady Eagles proved in winning the title in 2005, 2003, and 2002, they’ll be tough to beat at home.

1A Area 8

Teams: Sunshine (1), American Christian (2), Akron (3), Carrolton (4), John Essex (5).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 2 (see above)

Outlook: After finishing a perfect 8-0 in area play and earning the right to play host in what will be a packed gym in Newbern, Sunshine will be expected to run away with the area tournament as well. But Sunshine coach Phillip Wagner says any of Carrolton, Akron, or a dramatically-improved ACA (who went from the fifth-seed and first team out last season to runner-up this season) could pull the upset. With explosive eighth-grader Shafontaye Myers and seasoned senior Francesca Bates around, though, it’s just not likely.

AISA Class A West Area IV

Teams: MMI (1), Sumter Academy (2), Warrior Academy (3), Southern Academy (4), WAP (5).

Regionals: vs. East Area I

Outlook: The first upset of the 2006 postseason occurred Friday afternoon as Warrior turned the tables on a Sumter Academy squad that had defeated the Lady Braves twice during the regular season and dealt MMI their only loss in 19 games. The Lady Braves will have to play an even better game than the one they did Friday to topple the Lady Tigers, however, as MMI won both previous meetings by an average of 20 points.

AISA Class AA West Area III

Teams: Patrician Academy (1), Wilcox Academy (2), South Choctaw Academy (3), Marengo Academy (4).

Regionals: vs. East Area II

Outlook: A young Marengo Lady Longhorn team fell as expected Thursday night to Patrician, the No. 8 team in AISA. But the future is bright for the Lady ‘Horns: the majority of their varsity squad (including leading scorer an point guard Tina Allen) also plays for the junior high team, which finished a perfect 16-0 and won the Class AA state tournament.