Although I have two ex-wives and a 20-year-old daughter, I would never presume to say I understand women. But after a few years of covering women’s sports, I have to come to understand one thing — female athletes might be the most unpredictable members of our species.

This year’s area basketball season is a case in point, with teams taking turns beating each other almost since the season began. For instance: Vanoss began the season by beating Roff, then Roff beat Latta, Latta beat Vanoss, Vanoss beat Konawa, Konawa easily beat Latta, Latta beat Stonewall and Stonewall beat Konawa. Along the way, Tupelo also lost to Vanoss by double digits at the Pontotoc Conference Tournament, then came back to beat the Lady Wolves by 20 the following week.

Coaches say “match-ups” are the reason for these inconsistencies, but I think the wacky results in area girls high school basketball so far this season can be explained by the simple fact that women like to keep men — especially sports writers — guessing.

So as we enter my favorite week of the year (a week that includes not only Christmas but also the Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Girls Tournament at the Kerr Center), I admit to being even more confused than usual about the state of area girls basketball. Later this week, though, things should become clearer.

Three local teams — Ada, Coalgate and Stonewall — are part of the eight-team Mid-America bracket, and, based on their accomplishments last season, all three deserved their invitations. But as the tournament approaches, only one — Coalgate — is actually the same team that was invited by the Mid-America board of directors early this year.

All three squads are coming off state tournament appearances that were unexpected based on recent history — Ada in Class 5A for the first time in four seasons and Coalgate (2A) and Stonewall (Class A) for the first time in decades. The Lady Cougars lost to eventual state champ Tulsa East Central in the first round after a magical playoff run, and the Lady Wildcats and Lady Longhorns reached the state semifinals for the first time in school history.

Coalgate lost hard-nosed forward Lauren Sandmann and 3-point specialist Jamaica Pebworth off the 2005-2006 squad but returned a solid nucleus, including 6-1 junior-to-be Mallory Walker and guards Teran Mixon and Jordan Helton. As expected, the Lady Wildcats (ranked No. 3 in 2A) have stormed virtually untested through the pre-holiday portion of their schedule, and their meeting with Class 4A No. 2 Cache (7-0) is the only Mid-America first-round contest involving unbeaten teams.

Stonewall and Ada are a different story, however.

The Lady Longhorns — who lost just one starter (Tobie Daniel, whose scoring average was the lowest among Stonewall’s top six players a season ago) to graduation — were an attractive local option for Mid-America officials and a logical preseason No. 1 in Class A after beating Crowder in the first round of the 2006 state tournament and losing by three points to eventual champ Depew in the semifinals.

But the loss of Daniel, the team’s emotional leader and one of Stonewall’s best clutch players, has been more of a blow than expected, and the additional loss of guard Tesia Worcester for the season has radically changed the personality of Christie Jennings’ team.

Jennings, who went 29-2 last season and is a sparkling 58-12 since taking over the Stonewall girls program at the start of the 2004-2005 campaign, admitted that she thought her team was ranked too high when the season began. And, to this point at least, the Lady Longhorns have proven her right.

With Daniel gone, Kristie Byrd has moved into the starting line-up, thus denying Jennings one of the state’s best sixth men. Byrd was a huge weapon off the bench last season, consistently coming into games to give Stonewall a lift with a 3-pointer, a rebound or a defensive play, and she didn’t appear comfortable in her new role early this season. She has shown signs of settling in over the past few games, however, and enters the tournament averaging over 10 points per game following a recent offensive surge.

Without Byrd, the Stonewall bench got significantly younger and thinner; without Worcester, the Lady Longhorns suffered defensively and got noticeably slower.

A trio of sophomores — Shelby Lackey, Tyla Transue and Kayla Byrd — have taken turns filling the fifth spot in the Stonewall starting line-up, and, although all three have had their moments, they’re all still trying to prove they deserve the job on a regular basis. None, however, appears capable of becoming the sparkplug that Worcester was for the Lady Longhorns as a freshman and sophomore (when she averaged 10 points and five steals per game each season).

Stonewall’s drop-off at both ends of the floor was demonstrated in a high-profile 46-26 early-season home loss to the same Crowder team the Lady Longhorns drilled in the state tournament just eight months earlier, and Jennings’ club stalled offensively again in Tuesday’s 49-41 loss to Latta (which came into the game at 2-6). But Stonewall (11-2) grabbed back some momentum with Thursday’s tense 53-51 victory over a good Konawa squad (5-1 and ranked No. 13 in 2A before the loss), and Jennings and her players appear to have some badly needed confidence heading into this Thursday’s first-round showdown (6:30 p.m.) with unbeaten Elgin (No. 6 in 4A).

Felicia Logsdon, one of the area’s best players as a sophomore and junior and Stonewall’s leading scorer the past two seasons, has broken out of an early-season scoring slump in style (19 points against Latta and 17 in the Konawa win), 6-1 Rena Serpa (a 12-points-per-game scoring average for the season and four blocked shots against Konawa) provides match-up problems for almost every Stonewall opponent, and Byrd, Lackey, Logsdon, Transue and, to some extent, guard Cherokee Brown, have all proven themselves to be dangerous from the perimeter.

Brown, who made huge strides last season as a sophomre and teamed with Worcester to give Stonewall one of the state’s youngest and most dynamic small-school backcourt tandems, had a huge 18-point effort that was the difference in a win over surprising Tupelo early in the season, but she has simply deferred to her teammates offensively in most of Stonewall’s games since. Easily her team’s quickest player and probably its best athlete, Brown can be a difference maker over the second half of the season, and the Lady Longhorns will need her down the stretch if they are going to match last season’s playoff run.

Like Stonewall, Ada lost one of its offensive sparks when point guard Jourdan Clark (my area girls Athlete of the Year as a freshman after also winning a state title in the hurdles) moved to Midwest City (where she is playing basketball for Carl Albert), and, like Jennings, first-year Lady Cougar coach Michelle Shannon has been looking for somebody to fill the huge void left by the loss of her best athlete (Clark) and her inspirational leader (Joy Barrick, who graduated).

Shannon made her new job look easy in wins over Wewoka and Dickson (still the only losses for those two teams, who are a combined 9-1 and ranked in the top 20 in their respective classes) to start the season, but her offense struggled last week in losses to Broken Bow and old rival McAlester. As a result, she will take a couple of pages out of longtime coach Jeff Maloy’s 2005-2006 playbook for the Mid-America.

In keeping with Maloy’s fluid offensive philosophy last season during what might have been his best coaching job in 14 seasons at Ada, Shannon has decided to scrap her motion offense and go back to the high-low post offense that was a Maloy staple in recent years. She’ll add a wrinkle, though, sending guard Taylor Howard to the high post instead of a taller player, thus providing some interesting match-up problems for her opponents this week.

Howard, who, like Clark, was one of Ada’s best athletes (she was fourth in the state golf tournament) as a freshman, hasn’t provided much offense the last couple of games, but she is a better outside shooter and ball handler than either Laura Frye or Megan Foley (much taller players who occupied the high post for Maloy the past two seasons) and should be able to create scoring opportunities for both herself and her teammates in much the same way the quicker Clark did from the point last season.

Like Stonewall, Ada faces a smaller, quicker — and unbeaten — first-round opponent Thursday (Class A No. 1 Fort Cobb-Broxton) to open Mid-America play, and the Lady Cougars should get an immediate test for their new offense. If Howard is as effective as she should be in her new role, she could open things up all over the floor and perhaps thaw out the Lady Cougars’ ice-cold attack.

Whatever happens to Coalgate, Stonewall and Ada this week, one thing is sure — all three teams will come out of the Mid-America better than they went into it. After three straight days of facing the best of Oklahoma’s girls basketball teams, the area squads will see how they stack up and what they need to fix before heading off down the homestretch of a season that began with so much promise for all three.

The Mid-America is the kind of event that comes along maybe once in a lifetime for most high school players and coaches, but Jennings, Shannon and Coalgate coach Jim Jenson have made a total of seven previous trips to the tournament as either players or coaches. With Elgin and defending tournament (and 6A) champion Mustang (the fourth unbeaten team in the bracket) also returning from last year, the 2006 Mid-America will look as much like a reunion show as what it is — Oklahoma’s best girls basketball tournament and an event that shouldn’t be missed by anybody with a chance to participate, either as a player, a coach or a fan.


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