ADA — Damon Garner sat in the rafters at the Kerr Activities Center Thursday afternoon, scribbling notes as he watched the Byng-Marietta loser’s bracket contest in the Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Basketball Tournament.

But he wasn’t where he wanted to be — either literally or figuratively.

Instead of game-planning for a semifinal meeting with Perkins-Tryon later in the evening, Garner — the first-year coach of the Elgin Lady Owls — was already forcing himself to prepare for for his Friday opponent.  And, whether that opponent was Marietta or Byng, Garner knew he wasn’t going to be where he wanted to be at the same time Friday, either.

When Garner and his club arrived in Ada Wednesday for the state’s most prestigious non-playoff tournament for girls, the Lady Owls were among the favorites in a field that also included two top-ranked teams (Frontier in Class A and Dover in Class B) and a squad ranked No. 2 (Mustang from 6A) that is arguably the best girls team in Oklahoma in any class.

Elgin rolled into the Mid-America riding an eight-game winning streak and ranked No. 3 in Class 4A despite the loss of last season’s leading scorer and rebounder (Kinzie Hall, who moved to Sequoyah), and Garner and his club were on the kind of high that comes with reaching the Christmas break without a loss.

This season, though, the Lady Owls and their coach didn’t really get a holiday break and, after a 66-57 loss to Frontier Wednesday in the Mid-America’s opening round, they won’t be undefeated when they begin the 2006 portion of their season.

Elgin rebounded with a 63-56 victory Thursday over an Elk City team the Lady Owls had handled with ease earlier in the season, and, as Garner sat and watched Byng and Marietta battle a few minutes later, he was looking at the Mid-America’s consolation final (in which Elgin clobbered Byng, 70-42) not so much as another game but more as a chance to get his team back on track for the 4A state title that seemed to be a realistic goal when the week began.

“We haven’t played this bad since the first week of the season,” Garner said.  “We seem to be having a confidence problem, and that’s not like us at all.

“We don’t want to peak too early, but we were playing at a pretty high level before we got here,” he added.  “I wanted to improve from there, not go down.”

The good news for Garner is that, even with the loss of Hall, his team is loaded with weapons, and the Lady Owls are still very young.  Elgin starts only two seniors -- forward Kelsey Hale and center Jessica Pillow -- and, although Garner and his club are still getting comfortable with each other, Elgin left town as one of the favorites for a 4A state title in March..

“We’ll get to where we want to be,” Garner predicted.  “This is a great group of kids, and the seniors have adjusted well to the coaching change. 

“When you bring in a new coach, you have to see how the leaders on the team adjust, and there really hasn’t been much difference,” he added.

Garner had spent three years coaching the Elgin boys when he was asked to take over the girls this season after Rick Wilson — one of the state’s most successful girls’ coaches and a five-time winner of the Mid-America with three different teams — left to take the head job at Weatherford.

After 10 years of coaching boys (the first seven at Central-Marlow), Garner was suddenly in charge of one of the state’s up-and-coming girls programs.  The former Durant High basketball star (he still holds the school record for points in a game with 45) said his additional responsibilities required an adjustment, but he added that he felt the timing was right.

“I wanted to find out if I COULD coach girls,” Garner said.  “My daughter (12-year-old Jordan) is a pretty good player, and I’m hoping to coach her in high school.

“It’s been better and a little easier than I thought it would be,” he added.  “My assistants (Diane Dye and Cody McHugh) have been remarkable.  They’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes to make my job easier.”

And a solid nucleus of returning players hasn’t hurt, either.

Hale, Pillow and Rawls are all averaging in double figures for the season, and 5-9 sophomore Maggie Oliver (Hall’s replacement in the starting lineup) scored 31 points in Elgin’s first two tournament games.  In addition, Garner has a strong bench with both size and quickness.

Against Frontier, though, the Lady Owls were out of sync for one of the few times this season.

Pillow, who is among the most athletic post players in the tournament and a good 3-point shooter to boot, picked up two quick fouls and eventually fouled out of Wednesday’s game with just five points; Rawls finished with eight points and seven assists but didn’t score in the first half while dealing with Frontier star Jenna Plumley; and Hale and Oliver -- despite combining for 28 points and 16 rebounds (12 by Hale) — missed several point-blank shots that could have meant the difference in a game Frontier led by only two points with less than four minutes to play.

Oliver bounced back to go 7-of-10 from the floor against Elk City, but Hale — averaging more than 15 points per game to lead the team when the Mid-America began — struggled again Thursday, hitting just 1-of-7 shot and finishing with four points.  Garner said, however, that Hale, a 5-9 senior, is still the heart and soul of his club.

“She’s a pure fighter,” Garner noted.  “She’s tough as nails.  She’s somebody you want on your side.”

Garner said Pillow’s foul problems were probably the biggest factor in the loss to Frontier, because they cost him a player who presents match-up problems for every team Elgin faces.

“She’s athletic and strong,” he said.  “She’s tough to deal with.”

And in Rawls (an all-tournament selection along with Oliver), Elgin had one of the best point guards in a tournament that was dominated by guard play in its first two days.. 

“She’s very intelligent with our offense -- she knows what we’re trying to do,” Garner said of Rawls, a 5-4 junior who was 10-for-10 from the free throw line against Elk City to finish with 16 points and who finished with 21 assists in three tournament games.  “She’s one of the better point guards around.”

Like the other seven coaches with teams at this year’s tournament, Garner saw the Mid-America as a chance to gauge his club against the best in Oklahoma heading into the final two months of the regular season.  And, after back-to-back disappointments, Elgin seemed back on track with Friday's blowout of Byng.

“I thought the loss (to Frontier) might be a good learning experience for us, but we were flat against Elk City,” Garner said.  “Maybe we got too fired up about playing here.  We forgot to go out and treat it like a game and have fun.”

This Week's Circulars