Although the 2010 Bertha Frank Teague has drawn one of the deepest field in its long history, Monday’s (4:30 p.m.) contest between Bethel and Cyril has one thing none of the other three first-round games can claim.
The showdown between the Lady Wildcats (No. 2 in Class 3A) and the Lady Pirates (No. 1 in Class A) is one of just two opening-round contests between unbeaten teams (Shawnee-Anadarko in Monday’s opener is the other), but it is the only game on the tournament’s opening day between teams who entered this week ranked in the top five in their respective classes.
Bethel improved to 4-0 with a win over defending Class 2A champion Dale on Dec. 14, and Cyril has ripped off a tournament-high nine victories in November and December against one of the state’s best small-school schedules.
As good as their teams have been so far, though, Bethel coach Jerry Johnson and Cyril head man Jeff Fletcher both said they expect the Mid-America to make them better.
“It’s another one of those Mid-America’s where there will be some quality teams in the loser’s bracket — it’s that loaded,” said Johnson, whose club claimed the tournament’s consolation title in 2009 after suffering a tough 60-56 opening-round loss to another Class A No. 1, Chattanooga. “Last year was a big learning experience for us.
“I hadn’t had the opportunity to put some of my younger girls in that situation,” he added. “Hopefully our eyes will be a little more wide open than they were last year and we’ll have a better opening game.”
“It’s the best girls tournament in Oklahoma by far, and we’re going to see some good teams,” said Fletcher, whose has watched his team beat its first nine opponents by an average of over 32 points per game while holding all nine under 40 points (and seven under 30). “My girls know it’s good preparation for the playoffs, and our goal is to be ready for the playoffs.”
Johnson said he expects another tough fight this year in his team’s second straight match-up against one of the top small-school squads in Oklahoma.
“I had a chance to go watch them play (Class 2A No. 3) Snyder (in a 48-39 victory that was one only two games on the Cyril schedule so far this season decided by fewer than 31 points),” Johnson said. “Cyril is huge. Thay have a really good inside game and a talented point guard (senior Shelbie Laughlin). We’ve got a formidable task ahead of us, I know that.”
Bethel’s season took an unexpected turn last season when then-sophomore Taylor Cooper — an all-tournament selection at the Mid-America — suffered a torn ACL during the team’s playoff run. As a result, the 23-4 Lady Wildcats saw their season end prematurely in the area tournament.
Johnson said Cooper, a versatile six-footer with one of the state’s best outside shots, hasn’t just made a complete recovery from her injury — she’s come back better than ever.
“She’s back and she’s ahead of where we thought she would be in her rehab,” Johnson said of Cooper, a three-year starter who averaged 17.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season. “I’ve had a number of kids over the years with ACL tears, and the amount of effort she put into her rehab was amazing. If you don’t pay attention, You can’t tell that she’s even wearing a brace. She’s actually more athletic this year than she was last year.
“In comparison to last year, she’s probably 110 percent,” he added. “She’s stronger, faster, she jumps better, and she’s a smarter player. Sitting on the bench next to me all summer long and watching me was very valuable to her. It hurt us at the end of last season, but in the long run I think it will be valuable for us and for her.”
Senior guard Lauren Tade will miss the Mid-America with an injury of her own, but Johnson said he will be bringing one of his most talented teams in a quarter-century as a coach to Ada.
“I’ve got a lot more weapons than we’ve had in the past,” he explained. “The last team I’ve had that was close to this one was the group we had in 2001 that went 29-0. I’m not going to say this team is that good just yet, but it has as many weapons as that one.”
In addition to Cooper, Johnson’s starters include another versatile performer in senior Sami Martin, experience in another senior, Shalynn Flanagan, more size in junior sixth man Megan Acklin and another talented junior in 5-8 Kylee Tatum.
The Lady Wildcats’ X-factor, though, could be another member of the Cooper clan, freshman point guard McKenzie Cooper.
“She’s got good quickness and handles the ball really well,” Johnson said of the younger Cooper. “She’s extremely intelligent for a freshman.
“I couldn’t be any happier with her play right now,” he added. “I don’t have to worry about her being afraid — she’s quite a competitor.”
The 5-8 Martin, who played inside for Bethel last year, have moved to the backcourt for her senior season. Johnson said her versatility provides match-up problems for any opponent.
“She played the post for us last year, and moved to guard this year and she’s really played well,” Johnson said. “She shoots the 3 exceptionally well, and she’s become a really good slasher. She’s become a valuable weapon for us.”
While Acklin can join Flanagan and Cooper to give Bethel a bigger lineup, Tatum can replace Acklin to provide strong perimeter defense.
“Shalynn is our secondary post, but she will slide out to the arc once in a while, and she can shoot the 3,” Johnson said. “Megan (at 5-11) continued to progress last year, , and I felt like we were going to be deep enough in the post that we could move Sami to guard. When I’ve had kids hurt, (Acklin) started for us. She’s averaged 10 points a game off the bench. Her post play has been good, but when she steps out from the basket she’s really dangerous.”
While Johnson has established one of Oklahoma’s most high-profile girls programs during his time at Bethel, Fletcher inherited one that had almost hit rock-bottom when he arrived at Cyril at the start of the 2006-2007 season. With his current nucleus of five senior starters leading the way, the Lady Pirates reached the state tournament the past three seasons and took home a silver ball in each of the last two.
“I’ve told our seniors (the Mid-America) is a reward for what they’ve done in their careers,” Fletcher noted. “They’ve put Cyril girls on the map.”
Laughlin (5-4) is the team’s second leading scorer at 13.5 points per game and the quarterback of an offense that has size, quickness and balance.
“She’s a great leader and a tremendously competitive kid,” Fletcher said of his point guard, who averaged 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game during a junior campaign in which Cyril finished 24-4. “I wouldn’t trade her for anybody. She has a lot of weight on her shoulders, and carries it pretty well.”
The Lady Pirates’ leading scorer is six-foot center Shelbi Skaggs, who is averaging over 15 points per game after averaging 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds as a junior.
“She’s a true low-post kid,” Fletcher said of Skaggs. “She can score pretty well, and she’s a pretty good post defender. She’s hard to contain for most people.”
Skaggs’ partner in the post is 5-11 Emily Horn, who is averaging about 10 points per game.
“We run a lot high-low stuff with those two,” Fletcher explained. “We base our whole existence on that.”
Joining Laughlin in the Cyril backcourt are 5-8 sharpshooter Chelsea Reynolds and 5-10 defensive specialist Brooke Horne.
“Chelsea is a really good spot-up 3-point shooter,” Fletcher said of Reynolds, who is averaging about nine points per game. “She’s shooting about 44 percent from the 3-point line right now. She’s a really smart kid with a lot of experience, and she doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
“Brooke is our lock-down defender,” he added. “She’s always going to guard the best player on the other team. She’s a three-year starter, and she’s guarded some of the best players in the state over the years. She takes a lot of pride in her defense.”
As good as the Lady Pirates have been so far, they could have been even more formidable if sophomore guard Jaci Booker and junior center Jessica Potter hadn’t suffered torn ACL’s — Booker in preseason and Potter during softball.
“It really hurts our depth,” Fletcher said. “It hasn’t hurt us so far, but I think in this tournament we might start seeing it.”
With Booker (“our best athlete”) and Potter on the shelf, Fletcher has turned to sophomore guard Morgan Dodson and junior Brigitte Thompson (“she’s kind of a tweener”) for most of the minutes off his bench.
He said he has a lot of respect for the Lady Wildcats but expects his club to give a good account of itself Monday and during the Mid-America’s entire three-day run.
“They’re a typical Bethel team — they’re very physical and play great defense,” he noted. “They run a lot of different presses and traps and try to generate some turnovers. They’re extremely patient and disciplined.
“I think we’ll match up pretty well,” Fletcher added. “We’ve got some size, too, so size won’t be the problem. They have some quickness, and that might give some of our kids trouble, but overall I think we’ll match up pretty well with them.”