I always get hungry this time of year.

Maybe I’ve looked at one too many Norman Rockwell paintings or seen the dogs carry off the turkey in “A Christmas Story” one too many times, but there’s just something about the holidays that makes my mouth water.

This year, though, I’m not hungry for turkey or dressing or cranberry sauce or punkin pie. Two months of high school and college basketball have simply whet my appetite for what promises to be a very entertaining second half of the season.

When the campaign began in early November, Latta and Roff (or Roff and Latta) looked like the two dominant boys teams in the area, and they did very little to hurt their respective reputations over the past eight weeks. The Tigers, who play defense like they’ll all lose an hour of their lives for every point an opponent scores against them, have started the season 11-0 under new coach Darrick Farriell, while the Panthers, despite three narrow losses (including one to Roff), have shown flashes of the team that reached the state tournament last season for the third time in Donnie Husband’s four years at the school.

Roff (No. 5 in Class A in the latest Coaches Aid poll) is led by senior sharpshooter Dearth Parker, an all-state candidate who scored 38 points in the Tigers’ 44-38 victory over Latta last month and who, night-and-and-night-out, is one of the state’s most valuable players. Farriell has surrounded Parker with a collection of hard-nosed, blue collar warriors who individually would hardly draw a passing glance from a college recruiter but who, as a team, are something special.

Latta, meanwhile, has the three-headed monster of guards Kolbie Brown and Trevan Jimboy and 6-6 center Isaac Vandever, and on a good night the 10th-ranked Panthers appear capable of playing with any team in a loaded Class 2A.

On the girls’ side, Konawa and Byng were the area’s dominant teams in 2004-2005, and both appeared to have a strong enough nucleus back this season to make them forces once again. But the Lady Tigers — despite the presence of sophomore star Kelsey Howard and six-foot senior Rachael Cole — were out-quicked and outmuscled in early losses to Byng, Latta and Stonewall, and the Lady Pirates — still looking for a team leader after the offseason losses of Kelsey Harris and Katie Campbell and still waiting for Brooke Harris to return from a severe ankle injury suffered during softball season — were a disappointing 5-4 (after a 3-0 start) heading into this week’s Mid-America Tournament.

With last season’s heavyweights struggling, three teams — Coalgate, Latta and Stonewall — have emerged as the top girls squads in south central Oklahoma, and all three reached the Christmas break with realistic expectations of a state tournament run in February. And, in a season when a number of squads returned some outstanding upperclassmen, a freshman has emerged as arguably the area’s top big-game player.

Latta’s Skyler Jenson (whose father, Jim, is in his first year as the coach of the unbeaten Coalgate Lady Wildcats) has consistently played like a coach’s kid since the season opener, and her 20-point, 10-rebound performance in a win over Byng and her sensational 22-point, 12-rebound effort Tuesday — as the Lady Panthers handed Stonewall its first loss of the season — established her as one of the area’s elite players in any class. Jenson has teamed with senior Chelsey Bennett to give Latta a consistent 1-2 punch (the pair have combined to score in double figures 20 times in Latta’s 12 games), and Tuesday’s victory left the Lady Panthers at 8-4 (despite a brutal schedule so far) in David Tinkler’s first year at the helm.

Coalgate, meanwhile, was virtually untested through eight games and entered the break ranked No. 7 in Class 2A (the highest ranking ever for a Coalgate basketball team), and Stonewall’s 14-game winning streak to open the season had the Lady Longhorns also on uncharted ground at No. 9 in Class A before Tuesday’s loss at Latta.

So, with a look ahead to what should be an exciting couple of months leading up to the state tournament, here are my latest area monthly rankings:

GIRLS

1. Coalgate (8-0): The Lady Wildcats have a budding star in sophomore center Mallory Walker, a solid group of returnees led by junior Teran Mixon (potentially the area’s best female athlete) and a new attitude with Jenson at the helm. At 8-0, they are the area’s only remaining unbeaten girls squad.

2. Latta (8-4): With impressive victories over Byng, Konawa and Stonewall this season, the Lady Panthers have already beaten every top girls team in the area except Coalgate, and Bennett and Jenson show no signs of slowing down. Latta could be very tough down the stretch if senior forward Beth Nevland can step up her scoring pace and the bench continues to produce.

3. Stonewall (14-1): Despite their 57-53 loss to Latta, the Lady Longhorns have as many weapons and as good a defense as any team in the area, and Christie Jennings’ club is still very young. Juniors Felicia Logsdon and Rena Serpa are among the region’s top scorers, sophomores Tesia Worcester and Cherokee Brown form a cat-quick backcourt, and senior Tobie Daniel and super-sub Kristie Byrd are underrated.

4. Ada (3-1): The Lady Cougars flopped in their season opener at Wewoka, but they have come back to win three straight and avenged that opening loss in their last outing. Jeff Maloy’s club has a potentially dominant center in 6-1 junior Megan Foley, proven scorers in Caitlin Patrizi and Molly Maloy and an exciting newcomer in freshman point guard Jourdan Clark.

5. Allen (8-1): Greg Mills’ young Lady Mustangs have lost only to Stonewall and might have the biggest upside of any team in the area. Senior Kelsey Gee is the female equivalent of Roff’s Dearth Parker, and she has a solid supporting cast that includes freshman guard Danli Mills (the coach’s daughter), center Brittnea Nemecek and guards Lorissa Skelton and Jerrica Mullicane.

BOYS

1. Roff (11-0): The Tigers — with a starting lineup of Parker, Jason Trimmer, C. J. Stewart, Patrick Blevins and Atlee Kile that doesn’t have a player taller than 6-1 — have surrendered 34 points or less to six straight opponents since the victory over Latta, and they have a solid chance to remain undefeated heading into a Jan. 30 road showdown with Class B No. 2 Stringtown.

2. Latta (9-3): Husband’s club seems to bring out the best in opposing teams and their star players, but Brown, Jimboy and Vandever give the Panthers a threesome to rival any in the state. Latta is still searching for the kind of consistency that took the team into the state tournament last February but probably has more talent than any squad in the area.

3. Byng (6-3): In preseason I tabbed the Pirates as potentially one of the area’s most improved teams, and they have lived up to expectations. Byng boasts quality victories over Latta and Tishomingo (which beat Latta a week earlier), and sophomore center Caleb Timmons has emerged as one of the region’s top big men. The Pirates, largely a 3-point shooting club a year ago, have a new, more physical style of play — led by Timmons, the sharpshooting backcourt of Ryan Haynes and Preston Petty and front-liners Jordan Parnacher and Heath Wall — and a surprisingly strong bench.

4. Ada (1-3): The Cougars are very young, but they were competitive in two losses to Wewoka (No. 3 in 2A) and one to Broken Bow (No. 4 in 4A) and figure to continue to improve under first-year coach Scott Lowrance — if a killer schedule doesn’t break their spirit.

5. Stratford (5-1): Mark Qualls’ Bulldogs have won four straight since being dominated by Konawa in their second outing of the season, and they have shown the kind of offensive firepower that was their trademark a year ago. Junior guard Garan Qualls has emerged as a major offensive threat, and he teams with T. J. Gaines and vastly improved Jeremy Lavorchek to give Stratford one of the area’s highest-scoring backcourts.