For a good portion of the 2007-2008 basketball season, the young Stratford Bulldogs were largely a one-man show. But man, what a show.
Dalen Qualls had one of the greatest freshman campaigns in Oklahoma prep basketball history, averaging 29.2 points per game and earning Ada Evening News All-Area Player of the Year honors. Qualls accounted for most of the scoring on a Stratford team that started the season with virtually no varsity experience on the roster, lost five of its first six games, then won 14 of its final 20 before being eliminated by Latta in the Class 2A Regional tournament.
When the Bulldogs opened the 2008-2009 season earlier this month, veteran coach Mark Qualls was hoping his still-young squad could build on last year’s late-season momentum, and, to this point at least, even he has been a little surprised by the results. Stratford — which dropped to Class A this season — blew out former 2A rivals Vanoss (73-52) and Konawa (77-34) last week and, on the heels of a championship in the Big 8 Conference Tournament at Elmore City to open the season, is 5-0 for the first time in this decade and for one of the few times in Qualls’ 16 seasons as the school’s boys head coach.
“I’m not necessarily surprised we’ve won five games, but I’m surprised with the way we’ve played,” said the elder Qualls, whose club has averaged 81 points and surrendered less than 51 during its early-season winning streak. “I knew they were all winnable games.
“I think I was more surprised with how well we played in the tournament (opening with a pair of easy victories before beating host Elmore City in overtime), since we were just getting started,” he said. “I’ve had some of these kids in the gym (since school began), but getting them to mesh with the kids coming out of football isn’t easy.”
The most impressive thing about Stratford’s five wins so far hasn’t necessarily been Dalen Qualls. Sure, he’s still getting his points, averaging 29.6 points per game and has almost a triple-double with 10 rebounds and 9.4 assists per outing, but he’s also getting more help than at any time in his brief varsity career.
Nobody else on the team averaged in double figures in any category last season, but two other Stratford players — sophomore Matthew Knight and senior Dakota Russell — are averaging in double figures in scoring through five games, and two more — sophomore Nathan Stoliby and senior Adam Vanlandingham — have also scored in double figures in at least one game.
While Qualls was scoring a season-low 18 points and posting a triple-double in the Big 8 semifinals, Knight had a season-high 27 points to lead the team in scoring and hit five 3-pointers. In the championship win over Elmore City, four Bulldogs — Qualls, Russell, Knight and Stoliby — scored at least 12 points, and Stratford won despite Qualls being shut out in the first half for the first time in his career.
To this point, the Bulldogs have looked like one of the area’s best teams, and Mark Qualls said the reasons for his club’s fast start can probably be traced back to the way Stratford ended last season.
“I felt like we grew up a lot during the season last year, but even more during the playoffs,” he explained. “I think that, more than anything, helped us going into this season because it developed confidence.
“Our kids have always played hard — I’ve never questioned their intensity,” Qualls added. “If a couple more things had gone right, we could have popped into the area tournament, and our kids matured a lot.”
Qualls will get a chance to see just how far his team has come this week during a tough three-day stretch to close out the 2008 portion of its schedule. Stratford will host Roff — ranked No. 8 in Class B and riding a streak of six straight double-digit wins that has the Tigers at 8-2 — Tuesday before visiting New Lima (8-3) Thursday and Davis Saturday.
“We do have a tough stretch,” Qualls admitted. “In the past, we’ve won some games early, but we don’t usually put it together until we get to Christmas. If we have a good early stretch, that should give us some confidence heading into January. This stretch will be good for us, just from having to play a lot of tough people.”
Stratford’s battle with Roff Tuesday is one of the highlights of a busy final week of 2008 for most area teams (the Konawa and Latta girls will close out the year in the Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic Dec. 29-31).
In addition to Tuesday’s trip to Stratford, Roff will also host Red Oak Thursday, and the boys game will feature a match-up of the No. 8 and No. 1 teams in Class B. The doubleheader, originally scheduled to be played in McAlester, will begin at 6 p.m. with a girls contest between the Lady Tigers and 13th-ranked Red Oak.
Several area teams will be in action Monday, with Wewoka at Calvin, Tushka at Konawa, Mill Creek (with a boys squad ranked No. 7 in Class B) visiting Wayne and Vanoss hosting Maysville.
Other games on a full Tuesday schedule will include Ada’s visit to Ardmore to begin a rivalry home-and-home with the Tigers and Lady Tigers, Tecumseh (with a boys squad ranked No. 10 in Class 4A) at Byng, Latta at Tishomingo, Moss at Sasakwa, Wanette at Allen, Asher at Macomb, Antlers at Coalgate, Holdenville at Meeker, Mill Creek at Coleman and Stonewall at Stuart.
On Thursday, Allen will host Varnum, Mill Creek entertains Milburn, and Sasakwa will be at Tupelo, and Friday will feature another full schedule, with Ada hosting Elgin, Bowlegs visiting Asher, Byng at McLoud, Roff at Calvin, Coalgate traveling to Hartshorne, Konawa entertaining Holdenville, Latta on the road at Dickson, Rock Creek at Stonewall, Tupelo at Victory Life and Wanette traveling to Maysville.
In previous years, Roff might have been able to look past Stratford with a team like Red Oak on the horizon. This year, though, Qualls said his club’s fast start should mean the Bulldogs will get the Tigers’ full attention Tuesday — and that’s just the way he wants it.
“If you have to win by sneaking up on somebody, that takes a little bit of the luster off it,” Qualls said. “I want everybody to bring their A-game when we play play them. I think when Roff got beat right off the bat by Vanoss (55-51 in the season opener for both teams), that probably got their attention where nobody else is going to sneak up on them the rest of the season.
“As coaches, we look for every little motivational tactic we can use, so our record is just something else that should get them ready to play,” he added. “I think both teams will come in with a lot of confidence.
After reaching the state tournament with a relatively young team last year, Roff got a boost this season from junior move-ins Dylan Lemley (who came from Sulphur and is the Tigers’ leading scorer through 10 games) and Brendan McCurry (who averaged over 13 points per game for Tupelo last season). Since losing to Class B No. 3 Stringtown by 19 points in Game 4, Roff has been blowing out opponents, following an easy run to the Pontotoc Conference Tournament championship last week with another easy win (63-31) at Asher Friday.
“Roff’s defensive intensity probably concerns me more than anything,” Qualls said. “You have to take care of the basketball. If you turn the ball over, they’ll run you out of the gym, and we’ll have to rebound. They can score from anywhere, but Lemley and (junior center Josh) Jones really concern me. You’re not going to find many small-school teams that have that kind of post presence.
“It’s good to play them early in the season and see where we’re at,” he added. “It should be quite a battle. Im excited about it, because I know it’s good for our kids. I know we’ll be ready to play, especially in our little gym. It will be a playoff-type atmosphere, and it should make us better down the road. None of the kids I had on the floor against Roff last year (when the Tigers clobbered Stratford in the Bulldogs’ season opener) had any varsity experience at all.”
After Dalen Qualls scored a career-high 50 points in the season opener (a 100-48 blowout of Fox), Stratford’s next two opponents — Paoli and Elmore City — tried to take the sophomore phenom out of the offense with “junk” defenses designed to deny him the ball. Each time, though, Qualls’ supporting cast stepped up, scoring enough to loosen things up for him in the second half, and Mark Qualls said his team’s newfound balance, coupled with last season’s strong finish and this year’s drop into Class A, has given him reason for optimism about the Bulldogs’ playoff future.
“Honestly, I’m not as familiar with Class A as I am with 2A schools because we’ve spent the majority of our time at Stratford in 2A,” he said. “Just listening to everybody else, though, it gets me excited. There are good teams in any class, and you’re going to run into teams who can play.
“I’m thinking about (the postseason) a little in the back of my mind, but I just want to concentrate on getting better every day,” Qualls said. “You don’t ever want your kids to get to thinking they’re better than they are.”
Nobody, including Qualls, really had any idea how good his current Stratford club could be before Tuesday’s impressive win over a Vanoss team that had started the season 6-2. The Bulldogs — who have outrebounded their first five opponents by more than 15 per game — helding a whopping 57-39 advantage over the Wolves on the boards and got 37 points from Dalen Qualls (his highest point total since his 50-point explosion in the season opener).
“Even though Vanoss is a good rebounding team, we matched them,” Qualls said. “We were just crashing the boards hard. Neither team shot well. I think it was just a battle of intensity. Especially in a rivalry game, nobody expects to win by 20.”
Stratford isn’t small by Class A standards, but several of the Bulldogs’ taller players — the six-foot Qualls, 6-2 Knight and 6-3 Russell — do their best work on the perimeter. In fact, Stoliby, at 5-11, and Michael Jolly (6-0) have shared time in the post.
Vanlandingham, Ryan Gaines, Chase Chamberlain and Clay Rindal all played football and had only a few days of practice before the season began, and 5-11 sophomore Tommy Lawson is also expected back soon after breaking his foot in practice last month. Mark Qualls said that group should give his squad a big boost over the second half of the season.
“(The football players) will get in there and battle you and play physical, and that’s where football helps them,” he noted. “They’re not going to be intimidated.
“(Lawson) didn’t play football and dedicated himself to getting better (this fall),” Qualls added. “He gives us a defensive presence, and he gets the fast break going. He would have started for us if he was healthy. When he gets back, I’ll have 10 players in the rotation I can move in and out.”
Qualls said he has tinkered with his starting lineup through the first five games, with his son the only constant. He added, however, that several players — particularly Knight and Russell — have performed well enough to earn his confidence and, with it, more playing time.
“Matthew is another kid who just plays basketball,” Qualls said of Knight. “His freshman year, he didn’t have an opportunity to do a whole lot. he had one injury after another. He’s grown a good two or three inches, and it’s just part of that maturing process. He helps us a little bit everywhere. It’s good have that 3-point shooting, but I’ve been after him to attack the basketball. We’re just looking for consistency from him.
“Dakota played a lot last year,” he added. “He’s another kid who just plays basketball. He’s a streak shooter, and he’s my leading rebounder (at over 10 per game) so far. I’ve been looking for him to be more consistent than he’s been so far. He just enjoys playing. He’s pretty important to us.”
Despite the emergence of Knight and Russell and the upside of most of his other players, the veteran coach admitted the success of his latest Stratford squad will depend on the performance of the Bulldogs’ No. 1 resource — Dalen Qualls.
“The best is still there, but he’s gotten bigger and stronger and more mature,” the elder Qualls said. “He’s a better 3-point shooter, and he’s still distributing the ball. You want his hands on the ball, but it’s not just for him to score. If somebody else gets a good look or a good shot, he doesn’t have to touch the ball, and five games in we’re still trying to develop some things.
“If somebody (in Oklahoma high school basketball history) scored more than him as a freshman, I’m not aware of it,” he added. “People last year said, ‘If he’s doing that as a freshman, what’s he going to do as a junior and senior?’ I told them I hoped he wouldn’t have to do as much. We just play to win. We’re getting a lot of help out of these other kids, and we’ve won all of our games. I don’t think you can be successful unless you’re balanced.”
And as good as the Bulldogs have looked so far, Qualls said he hopes they will be much better in February when the playoffs roll around.
“I think we can be pretty good” he predicted. “Possibly by playoff time we could make a run. It all depends on the proper match-ups, but right now we’re developing depth, which you have to have to advance in the playoffs.
“We have to get a lot more consistent,” Qualls added. “Right now, we’re turning the ball over too much, and we’re really streaky. Once we realize we have to put a full game together, I think we can be pretty strong. I’ve never been one of those coaches to look down the road. We’re just trying to get as good as we can right now.”
For a good portion of the 2007-2008 basketball season, the young Stratford Bulldogs were largely a one-man show. But man, what a show.