STONEWALL — If Stonewall’s Lady Longhorns are feeling any pressure to make a run deep into the Class A playoffs, they have have nobody to blame but themselves.

Second-year coach Christie Jennings and her team could have taken things in stages and shown just a little improvement from last season, when a young, unknown Stonewall club put together a surprising 18-6 regular season and earned the right to host a district tournament.

Losses to Kiowa and Silo pointed out some basic weaknesses in quickness and and on offense and sent the Lady Longhorns packing after only two playoff games last year, leaving Jennings and her players with the spring and summer to think about a nightmare end to what had been, to that point at least, a dream season.

But instead of simply taking a step forward, the Lady Longhorns have taken one giant step and will enter this weekend’s district playoff tournament ranked among the elite teams in the state in Class A. Now all they have to do is prove that they belong there.

“As much as we’d like to forget the playoffs last season, it’s definitely in the back of our minds and drives us every day,” said Jennings, whose club finished the regular season 23-1 with a rout of Calera Tuesday and will carry a No. 5 ranking — highest in school history — into Saturday’s district championship game at the Murphy-Roberts Gymnasium. “Let’s just say that we have to play more than two basketball games (in the postseason) this year.”

Unlike last season, when the Lady Longhorns were ranked no higher than 18th at any point, Stonewall’s dominant 2005-2006 campaign has earned Jennings’ club a golden opportunity to advance out of the area and into the Class A state tournament. Seventh-ranked Davenport (20-2) is the only other top 10 team in Stonewall’s area, and if the Lady Longhorns can pass what should be much easier playoff tests in the district and regional rounds, they can insulate themselves against a potential loss to Davenport in the area title game.

“If things go like they should, we’ll probably meet Davenport for the area,” Jennings said. “They’re a pretty good basketball team from what I hear.”

Stonewall should have little trouble capturing the district title (at 6:30 p.m. Saturday) against the winner of Friday’s opening-round game between winless Maysville and 5-16 Stratford, and Stonewall will also host the first round of a regional tournament that also seems to offer no serious roadblocks.

Still, Jennings and her players (she returned five of her top seven from last year’s club and added the area’s best sixth man in junior Kristie Byrd) remember last year’s playoff disappointment and realize that, no matter how far they’ve come, they still have a long way to go before this season is considered a success.

“I know we’ve won 23 games, but it never crosses my mind that it’s a big milestone,” Jennings said. “We know that there’s a bigger goal, and we’re not going to be satisfied until we reach all of our goals.

“We do have a much better draw than we did last year, and we’re a much stronger basketball team than we were last year,” she added. “But I think the thing that will carry us farther is out maturity level.”

Although the Lady Longhorns have only one senior — forward Tobie Daniel — on the roster (a fact that has already earned the team an invitation to the prestigious Bertha Frank Teage Mid-America Basketball Tournament this December), Jennings’ key players all had a major role in Stonewall’s surprising success last season.

Felicia Logsdon, a 5-10 junior who was a first-team Ada Evening News all-area selection as a sophomore, is again among the region’s top players, and she teams with high-scoring six-foot junior Rena Serpa to form one of the state’s best low-post duos. A deft ball-handler with a deadly outside shot and great instincts around the basket, Logsdon also leads the team in assists and has become a more complete player this season.

But the biggest upgrade for the Lady Longhorns from 2004-2005 has been in the backcourt, where sophomores Tesia Worcester — who averaged 10 points and five steals as Jenning’s sixth man last season — and Cherokee Brown (“probably our most improved player offensively”) combine quickness, defense and surprising scoring punch to put pressure on opponents at both ends of the floor.

“I definitely think we’re harder to guard this year,” Jennings said. “I don’t know if I would want to put together a scouting report on us.”

Stonewall rolled into its final pre-Christmas contest at Latta with a 14-0 record, but the Lady Panthers handed the Lady Longhorns a 57-53 loss that wasn’t as close as the score. Since 2006 began, Stonewall has been the area’s dominant girls team, winning nine straight — including an impressive 41-34 victory over previously undefeated Coalgate (No. 6 in Class 2A) on Jan. 27.

“We went into the Latta game pretty complacent,” Jennings said. “I think we had gotten pretty satisfied with where we were, and we needed a wake-up call. As much as I would have liked an undefeated season, that (loss) might have been the best thing that could have happened to us.”

In the win over Coalgate, Stonewall took command early and built a 17-point third-quarter lead before the Lady Wildcats trimmed it to four late in the game. Jennings and her club had an answer in the final minutes, however, and went on to a victory that was the highlight of a four-game stretch that also saw the Lady Longhorns beat quality teams from Strother (in the finals of the S.T.A.R. Tournament), Allen and Tupelo.

“The Coalgate game proved to ourselves that we were legitimate,” Jennings said.

Although the Stonewall girls are an overwhelming favorite to claim their district crown Saturday night, the probable boys’ title game between Stratford (17-3 and ranked No. 13) and the host Longhorns figures to be one of the most entertaining playoff match-ups in the state this weekend.

Mark Qualls’ Bulldogs and Wes Moreland’s 14-10 Stonewall club have both played well down the stretch, and each club boasts two of the area’s top players (Garan Qualls and T. J. Gaines for Stratford, Bo Scribner and Brian Monroe for the Longhorns). Although Stratford has the higher ranking, Qualls will be missing senior guard Jeremy Lavorchek (academically ineligible for at least this week) and his 13 points per game, while Stonewall’s depth has been one of the team’s strengths.

In addition to Stonewall, two other area schools — Roff and Allen — are hosting Class A district tournaments, and six others — Tupelo, Calvin, Sasakwa, Wannette, Asher and Mill Creek — will also be in action in Class B, with Wanette, Calvin and Mill Creek all hosting districts.

At Roff, the high-flying Tigers (22-1 and ranked No. 3) are, like the Stonewall girls, an overwhelming favorite to win their district (championship game at 8 p.m. Saturday) at home, but, unlike the Lady Longhorns, the Tigers face a rugged road through their area. Allen’s boys and girls teams should both be favored in their district title games Saturday, but the Mustangs could face a stern test from Stuart (11-11), which upset Class B power Pittsburg last week.

Tupelo has the toughest district draw in the area, with the Tigers (15-8) and Lady Tigers (16-7 and ranked No. 16 in Class B) both facing championship games against highly-ranked Pittsburg teams that swept Tupelo back in November. Mill Creek’s surprising boys (18-6) should be a solid choice in a district where only one of their three rivals — 10-9 Thackerville — has won more than one game this season.

In the only playoff games involving area teams tonight, the Tupelo and Calvin girls will both be in action at Calvin, with Tupelo facing Hanna at 6:30 p.m. and Calvin facing fifth-ranked Pittsburg (17-5) at 8 p.m.; Sasakwa’s girls will meet Moss at 6:30 p.m. at Maud; and Mill Creek’s girls will face Thackerville at 8 p.m.

The remainder of the area teams will be in action Friday, with the exception of the Stonewall girls and the boys and girls squads from Roff and Allen (who all have first-round district byes).

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