ADA — The way Jeff Maloy sees it, traveling early in the playoffs is no big deal — as long as he and his Ada Lady Cougars get to make that one big road trip to Oklahoma City at the end of the season.

“I’m disappointed every year if we don’t make it to the state tournament,” said Maloy, who took eight of his first 13 Ada clubs to the Big Show. “That has to be your goal. If it’s not your goal, you’re not setting high enough goals.”

Maloy’s current Ada club didn’t start the season looking like a contender for the Class 5A state title. The Lady Cougars — returning four starters from last season’s 13-10 team that went one-and-out in the playoffs — were able to maintain a presence in the top 15, but, although they were playing good defense, they didn’t seem to have the firepower to make a run deep into the playoffs.

Ada’s offense hit rock bottom in early January, when the Lady Cougars managed just 19 points in a 10-point loss to Choctaw (a 6A club that won just one game before Christmas) in the finals of the East Central Oklahoma Classic, closing a four-game stretch that saw the Lady Cougars score fewer than 35 points three times.

But Maloy’s club will head into Thursday’s first-round regional loser-out contest against Western Heights (a team the Lady Cougars destroyed, 60-17, just two days before the loss to Choctaw) in Duncan having won five games in a row and nine of its last 10 and looking like a team with a future. A victory Thursday (tipoff at 6:30 p.m.) will send Ada — now 17-5 and ranked No. 12 in 5A — into a Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m.) showdown with ninth-ranked Duncan that could be a key to Maloy’s ninth state tournament appearance in 14 seasons.

“Saturday will be a big game,” Maloy said. “If you can come out of the regional as a winner, you’ve got a real good chance to go to the state tournament. But we have to take care of Western Heights (6-16) first.”

Ada’s trip to Duncan is part of a huge weekend for the seven area girls teams still alive in the state tournament chase. The larger schools (Ada in 5A, Byng in 4A and Coalgate, Latta, Konawa and Vanoss in 2A) will all play in regional tournaments Thursday through Saturday, while fourth-ranked Stonewall will try to bounce back from Monday’s loss to sixth-ranked Davenport and win three games in the loser’s bracket at the Class A area tournament in Chickasha to earn the first state tournament bid for a Lady Longhorn squad in 44 years.

In other girls’ games Thursday, Byng, a winner over Seminole Monday night to claim the district crown and improve to 10-15 on the season (after a trip to the area finals last year), will face eighth-ranked Anadarko (17-6) in a regional winner’s bracket contest at 3 p.m. Thursday in Tuttle; Coalgate, 22-1 and ranked No. 6 in 2A, will host Wewoka (14-7) in a regional winner’s bracket game at 6:30 p.m.; Latta (15-9) will visit Konawa (12-11) for a regional winner’s bracket contest after both teams claimed their district titles; and Vanoss (10-15) will meet Tushka (11-12) at 1 p.m. in a loser’s bracket contest at Coalgate.

Stonewall, which had its 10-game winning streak snapped with Monday’s 39-29 regional loss, will begin what second-year coach Christie Jennings hopes will be a long weekend in Chickasha with Thursday’s elimination contest against 17-6 Navajo at 6:30 p.m. at USAO.

In boys’ action Thursday, Byng (13-12) will face Anadarko (13-11) in a 3 p.m. loser’s bracket contest at Tuttle; Vanoss (6-19) will meet Tushka (13-9) in an elimination contest at 3 p.m. at Coalgate; Coalgate (14-9) will host second-ranked Wewoka (20-1) in a winner’s bracket game at 8 p.m.; and Latta (14-10) will invade Konawa (15-7) for another 8 p.m. winner’s bracket contest.

On Friday, Ada (7-15) will visit eighth-ranked Chickasha (19-4) for a loser-out game at 8 p.m., and Roff, 26-1 after a 50-34 regional blowout of tenth-ranked Achille Saturday night in Macomb and ranked as high as No. 2 in some state polls, will face third-ranked New Lima (24-2) in a marquee showdown at 8 p.m. at Ada’s Cougar Activity Center for the area championship and a berth in the Class A state tournament.

Maloy got some good news this week when hard-nosed guard Joy Barrick (the only senior to see significant action for his club this season) returned from a broken hand to see her first action in more than three weeks in Monday’s win (39-35) at Durant. Barrick came off the bench to score four points, but her coach said scoring isn’t the only thing she will add in the postseason.

“We got her in a game to see what she could do, and found out that she was able to help us,” Maloy said of Barrick. “She hit two big free throws late in the game. I don’t know how she was able to do it. Her hand is still broken but it’s in the process of healing. Most kids would probably be home with their hand iced.

“What (Barrick) gives us is defense and another body to keep our other guards (junior Molly Maloy, sophomore Jenny Bolin and freshmen Jourdan Clark and Taylor Howard) fresh,” he added. “And Joy gives us leadership. That’s something that isn’t seen by the average person.”

In Barrick’s absence, Howard flourished in a starting role, Clark continued her development into one of the area’s best point guards, and Molly Maloy took up the scoring slack with arguably the best stretch of her high school career. And, while the Ada guards have been putting pressure on opposing defenses from the outside, 5-10 sophomore center Lauren Whitworth has teamed with 6-1 junior Megan Foley to give the Lady Cougars their strongest inside presence in a couple of seasons.

Whitworth, who came off the bench to score 26 points in a 57-49 loss to ninth-ranked McAlester on Jan. 31 (Ada’s only defeat in the past five weeks), has started five straight games since that effort and has scored in double figures each time.

“Lauren is playing really well,” Maloy said. “I didn’t know how long it would last, but she’s proven to me that she’s going to score like that on a regular basis. Sometimes you put a kid in and they have a good game but they’re not very consistent, but she’s been consistent over the last three weeks.

“Molly has been shooting the ball well, and she’s also driving to the basket now ... that’s something we didn’t get from her earlier in the year,” he added. “Jourdan is very coachable and very mature — she’s not your typical freshman. She’s so quick that she can go get a shot at any time. To know when to shoot and when not to shoot is tough for a freshman, and she’s been able to balance that so well.”

Thursday’s regional action at Konawa will feature two of the week’s most intriguing showdowns, with the Latta girls attempting to go 3-0 this season against a Konawa club that dominated them last year and the Konawa boys trying to continue their late-season surge with a victory over a Latta club that handled them with relative ease in their last two meetings.

“It’s always kind of a mind-bender when you talk about playing a team for the third time,” first-year Latta girls coach David Tinkler said. “Konawa has a good ballclub (featuring 6-1 senior Rachael Cole and sophomore guard Kelsey Howard, the two returning starters off last year’s state tournament squad), and there won’t be any secrets for either team. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes and perseveres throughout the game will probably come out on top.”

Latta — led by senior guard Chelsey Bennett and freshman forward Skyler Jenson — went into the Christmas break on a roll at 8-4 (despite a rugged schedule) and boasting victories over Stonewall, Konawa and Byng, but the Lady Panthers — who closed the regular season with losses to Sulphur and top-ranked Washington — have been unpredictable so far in 2006. Tinkler said, however, that he has seen some positive signs from his club over the past month.

“I’m pleased from a defensive standpoint,” he said. “I think we could be scoring a little better, but we’re 15-9, and that’s not bad with the schedule we have. Anybody can pull a rabbit out of their hat, but I don’t think we’ll see anything in the playoffs that we haven’t already seen this year — that’s one thing a tough schedule does for you.

“I think my kids have learned to make adjustments, and that’s something they struggled with early in the year,” Tinkler added. “We don’t have everything totally tweaked, but hopefully we’re ready for the playoffs.”

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