Early in the 2005-06 season, every nook and cranny of the Stringtown gym was crowded with fans who wanted to see a regular-season showdown between the host Tigers (No. 1 Class B) and Class A No. 2 Roff.
Before the girls game was half over, the stands — including the aisles — were packed; by game time for the boys contest, the stage at one end of the gym was jammed, and fans stood two or three-deep around the floor and even spilled on to one corner of the court to watch Stringtown rout the visiting Tigers.
Stringtown officials sold tickets to everybody who wanted in, and whatever the recommended capacity is for the gym, it was exceeded by triple digits that night. Simply put, if there had been a fire, we all would have been barbecued or crushed in the stampede to get out.
Tuesday night’s doubleheader between Konawa and host Stratford might not offer the same 1-versus-2 matchup as that game five years ago, but it has the potential to attract the same kind of standing-room-only crowd. Postponed from Nov. 30 because the Stratford football team was still playing, Tuesday’s games should be the only two played in the state Tuesday. On an average night during the season, Stratford’s tiny gym would have been full for a doubleheader featuring three teams — the Konawa girls and boys and the Stratford boys — ranked in at least one poll; on Tuesday, with Christmas four days away and every player and coach in Oklahoma out of school, the demand for seats figures to far outstrip the number available.
Stratford boys coach Mark Qualls — whose team is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in Class 2A — said some effort was made to move Tuesday’s twinbill to a larger gym. As of Saturday morning, though, the games were still scheduled to be played at Stratford.
“We tried to get East Central’s gym for awhile, but they’re going to be out of class,” Qualls explained. “We also called and Ada and Byng, then I was reminded that we had scheduled a hamburger cookout to raise money for our trip to Tulsa (for next week’s Tournament of Champions).
“It was just short notice, and I was having enough to do just getting a basketball team ready to play a game,” he added. “Everybody was thinking football, and even after the season was finally over, it was tough to get everybody thinking about basketball.”
Although the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs would have surrendered home court advantage if the game had been moved, Qualls said a change of venue had merit.
“I was open to the idea,” he said. “Any time you can increase your crowd and increase your interest, you should try to do it. It won’t take a lot to fill our gym.”
Konawa coach Gordon Garner — whose girls squad is 7-0 and ranked No. 12 in 2A in the coaches poll and No. 10 by CoachesAid and whose boys are 6-1 and ranked No. 12 by CoachesAid — said he could see the pluses and minuses for Stratford if the games were played on a neutral court.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t move them,” he said. “I think (Stratford) could get a $3,000 gate pretty easy. I thought it would have been a win-win.
“If I’m Stratford, maybe I don’t want to give up that home court advantage,” Garner added. “Wherever it is, we’ll go play it.”
Stratford won an emotional boys contest, 70-59, at Konawa last year, and before it was over, things got so heated that the officials working the game threatened to clear the gym. This year, with both the Bulldogs and Tigers off to fast starts, things could get even more intense.
“They’re definitely talented,” Qualls said of the Konawa boys, who suffered their first loss, 56-52, at Holdenville (No. 13 in 2A) Friday night. “I like the way they’re playing together. They have several guys who can score, and they play good defense.
“Everybody is going to give us trouble for awhile,” he added. “Nobody realizes how tough it is to mesh in guys who are coming out of football — it’s not an easy transition. You have to get their minds to totally switch gears, and they’re battered and bruised.”
For the Konawa boys — who won just four games two seasons ago, then lost seven games by two points or in overtime during a 13-12 campaign in 2009-2010 — Tuesday’s contest is a chance to prove they belong with the best teams in 2A.
“If you’re lucky enough to beat a team like Stratford, people would take notice,” said Garner, whose boys squad couldn’t crack the top 20 in the latest coach’s poll despite upsetting ranked teams from Latta and Coalgate and beating Savanna in the championship game of the Southeastern Oklahoma Shootout in the space of five days earlier this month. “They’re just a very talented team. We need to just take care of our business. That’s the only way you can get recognized.
“Just playing people close doesn’t catch the eye of the coaches,” he added. “We need to play our game and hope we play our best against Stratford. We kind of took some of the lustre off the game (with Friday’s loss), but I think we’ll bounce back.”
Tuesday’s biggest draw might be Stratford star Dalen Qualls, Oklahoma’s leading scorer the past two seasons and averaging over 30 points per game as a senior. Qualls and backcourt mate Tommy Lawson (who recently returned to basketball after helping Stratford’s football team to the Class A finals) will go against a Konawa backcourt — senior Devin Terry, junior Chad Cloud and sophomore Alex Yellowfish — that has been the catalyst to the Tigers’ fast start.
“We need to get healthy (Yellowfish, Konawa’s point guard, was experiencing nausea and didn’t start the second half of Friday’s game) and get ready, because Stratford is going to be as good as anybody we’ve played,” Garner said. “They’re the team to beat in this area, and if we’re not hitting on all cylinders it’s going to be a long night.”
Tuesday’s game is part of a grueling final two weeks of December for the Bulldogs, who will be the No. 8 seed in a talented field at the Tournament of Champions next week. Qualls said his job has been made even tougher by the fact that he hasn’t been able to get his entire squad in the gym for more than a day of practice at a time since Stratford’s opener on Dec. 6.
“It will be a tough stretch for us,” Qualls said. “It would be valuable to be able to practice three or four days in a row, but playing these people will point out our weaknesses.
“I don’t like the fact that (the Tigers) have been in the gym so much longer than us with their full squad,” he said. “You’d like to have more time to get your team into basketball shape, but you don’t want to work them so hard that they’re dead-legged going into a game. You’d like to tear them down and build them up. I haven’t had the opportunity to do that.”