ALJ looks for another run

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 9, 2006

They don’t have R.C. Hatch’s No. 2 state ranking, Demopolis’s back-to-back Final Four appearances, or even Sunshine’s perfect area record. But that doesn’t mean the A.L. Johnson Lady Eagles don’t deserve to be included on anyone’s shortlist of the area’s best girls basketball programs and candidates for this season’s 1A Final Four.

For the fourth time in five years, the Johnson girls have won their regular season area title, finishing 7-1 and a game ahead of second-place Linden in 1A Area 2. The top-seeded Lady Eagles are hosting the Area 2 tournament and open postseason play Thursday night against fifth-seeded Coffeeville.

Hosting the tournament is a very good omen for the Lady Eagles. The last three times they did, they parlayed the home-court advantage into an area title, a home sub-regional game, and a trip to Mobile for Regionals.

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“We’ve gone to Mobile every time we’ve hosted,” says head coach David Wagner. “If you want to survive (sub-regionals), you have to have the best record, win your area, and make them come to you. You very seldom see an area runner-up make it to regionals. Very seldom.”

But despite their pedigree and experience–the Lady Eagles feature four seniors and six juniors on the roster, a sizable number for a 1A team–the regular season area title didn’t come easy. A rigorous non-area schedule left Johnson looking up at the .500 mark all season, and a road loss to the Linden Lady Patriots threatened the Lady Eagles’ claim on the area title.

But Johnson held serve at home against Linden, and when the Lady Patriots dropped a game against third seed Marengo the Lady Eagles were able to claim home-court advantage again. Wagner feels that despite the team’s 8-10 overall mark, the out-of-area schedule–the Eagles played multiple games against both 2A No. 2 Hatch and the formidable Sunshine Lady Tigers–has helped ready his team for another successful postseason.

“We played a lot of big-time basketball schools outside of our area,” he says. “In area play, we were pretty good.”

The Lady Eagles are led in scoring by 5-11 junior forward Shannon Steele, who pairs with her 5-10 sister Lakeisha Stelle, a junior, and 5-9 Sierra Summerville, a senior, to form a formidable frontcourt. Senior shooting guard Krystal McKinney and senior point guard Jennifer Harris form an experienced and steady backcourt.

According to Wagner, Johnson’s biggest strength is the teams’ defense, especially underneath the basket where the Steeles can use their height advantage

“The post defense we run, we do pretty well,” he says. “We’ve been able to shut down some of the top people we’ve played.”

Wagner says that Johnson’s biggest weakness, one that’s cost them a number of close games, is their inability to finish opponents off even after taking a late lead.

“They get rattled sometimes,” he says. “There’s games we’ve been leading in the fourth quarter we could have won if we’d been a little more settled. Whoever keeps their poise down the stretch is going to determine who wins the tournament.”

Of course, with the area tournament in Thomaston, the favorite to retain their poise remains the Lady Eagles.

“We can score,” Wagner says. “Our big thing is that we’re inconsistent at the free throw line. If we can hit 50-60 percent of our free throws and close teams out if we’re ahead of them, we’ll be tough to beat.”