Coalgate’s visit to Konawa Tuesday was a reminder not only of the dramatic shift in the balance of power in area girls’ basketball over the past three months but also of the striking parallels between this season for Coalgate coach Jim Jenson and the 2004-2005 campaign for Konawa’s Gordon Garner.

Last season, Garner came back to his alma mater after taking the Depew girls and boys to the Class 2A state tournament (and winning a gold ball with the boys) the previous season, and he promptly led a senior-laden Lady Tiger squad — which didn’t lose to an unranked team or a team from this area during the regular season — to Konawa’s first state tournament in five years.

Garner’s club stormed through the first three rounds of the playoffs without a loss and won a thriller against previously unbeaten Pocola for the area championship. But a loss by second-ranked Depew in the Lady Hornets’ area title game forced them to qualify for the state tournament out of the loser’s bracket and set up the one match-up Garner DIDN’T want — a showdown with his old team and superstar junior Rosie Hammond in the first round of the playoffs.

Konawa grabbed a 10-point first-half lead, but Hammond was a one-woman show in the second half, and Depew eliminated the Lady Tigers. Afterward, members of Garner’s old club came to the Konawa locker room, and most were in tears after beating their former coach. Hammond didn’t cry, however, stating she knew all along that she and her teammates could beat Garner and his system — the same system they had grown up in at Depew.

This season, although Coalgate hasn’t been quite as dominant against area competition as Konawa was in 2004-2005, the Lady Wildcats will carry a gaudy 21-1 record and a No. 6 state ranking to Tushka (10-10) for Friday’s district round of the 2A playoffs. Coalgate’s only loss in Jenson’s first season at the school (after he took the Alva girls to the 3A state tournament the past three years and to a title in 2003) came to high-flying Stonewall (24-1 and ranked No. 4 in Class A), and the Lady Wildcats are considered a threat to give Coalgate its first state tournament appearance in more than 30 years.

Ironically, Pocola (21-1 and ranked No. 3 in 2A) is again waiting as a huge obstacle in the area tournament for any area team that can survive, and, like Garner last season, Jenson sees the one game he has been dreading looming on the horizon.

Jenson’s daughter, Skyler, is a freshman at Latta, and, as the area’s top first-year player this season (she has scored in double figures 16 times in 22 games), she has been a major reason for the Lady Panthers’ 13-9 record and for a victory over Stonewall (the Lady Longhorns’ only loss of the season) and two wins each against last season’s top two girls’ teams, Konawa and Byng.

With expected victories Friday (Latta is at 6-15 Calera for the district round), Latta and Coalgate will be on a collision course for a potential showdown in their regional title game. The Lady Wildcats would move on to a probable rematch with Konawa in the first round of regional play (6:30 p.m. next Friday at Konawa), while Latta should advance to face the winner of Friday’s Vanoss-Wewoka contest at Wewoka.

If Coalgate and Latta win as expected, they will meet at 6:30 p.m. next Saturday (Feb. 25) in a regional final that will provide Jim Jenson with the ultimate in mixed feelings. He has been his daughter’s biggest fan all season, but facing her in the playoffs was the last thing he wanted.

“I wish the best for Skyler, but right now I’m just pulling for Coalgate to make it (to the regional final) and we’ll play whoever is there,” Jenson said after Tuesday’s win at Konawa. “I just hope we’re there to play SOMEBODY.”

Like Garner and first-year Latta coach David Tinkler, Jenson realizes the importance of surviving the regional tournament without a loss, especially with such quality teams as Pocola and eighth-ranked Warner (19-2) waiting in the area round.

“There are five good teams — Pocola, Warner, Konawa, Latta and us — in our area, and two of the five are probably going to the state tournament,” Jenson noted. “Everybody says Pocola’s in, so it looks like everybody else will be fighting for that one remaining spot.

“Saturday night (Feb. 25) at the regional tournament will be a good game for somebody,” he added. “If you win there, it gives you two shots (in the area round) to make the state tournament.”

While Jenson has experienced the kind of success every first-year coach hopes for, Garner has seen his girls squad (21-6 last season) struggle to an 11-11 record after the graduation of seven of his top nine players — including all-stater Jennifer Grant and the guard tandem of Amanda Walling and Laura Kuestersteffen. The Lady Tigers have lost to Coalgate and Stonewall in addition to two losses to a Latta club they dominated a year ago, and they have struggled for consistency all season.

Konawa’s boys, meanwhile, have been one of the area’s major surprises. The Tigers, who visit 11-7 Colbert for a district contest at 8 p.m. Friday, have no real stars but improved to 13-8 with their overtime victory over Coalgate Tuesday — despite the losses of high-scoring guard Darren Townley (who moved to Washington) and second leading scorer Nick Stephens (who graduated) off last year’s squad (which finished at .500).

“When things worked out the way they did with Darren, people were saying we wouldn’t win four or five games this season,” Garner said. “But I thought the boys had a better grasp of the game this year than the girls, because they got more playing time last season.

“They have practiced well all season, and I think they’ve bought into the fact that competition (for playing time) breeds success.”

In addition to the district road games involving Coalgate, Latta, Konawa and Vanoss in Class 2A Friday, girls and boys squads from Byng and Sulphur will open the 4A playoffs with district games this weekend. Byng (girls 9-15 and boys 13-11 but losers of five straight heading into the postseason) will host Seminole (girls 7-13, boys 12-9) Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (girls) and 8 p.m. (boys), while Sulphur (girls 13-6 and boys 7-12 but coming off a sweep of Latta last week) will host Dickson (girls 14-7, boys 15-6) at 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday.









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