TUPELO — Tupelo coaches Clay Weller and Brian Davis both have a simple formula for the postseason: win early to play late.

Despite representing one of only three schools in their area to have both boys and girls squads with winning records heading into Thursday’s district playoff round, Weller’s Tigers (15-8) and Davis’ Lady Tigers (16-7) have one the toughest combined district draws of any school in the state — facing Pittsburg squads that are both ranked in the top 11 in Class B and who swept Tupelo at Tupelo on Nov. 29.

But if either or both Tupelo schools can pull of the upset and win the district tournament in Calvin, surviving well into the area round is a strong possibility.

“Obviously, we’ll have to play a team we’re familiar with in the district,” Weller said of the Pirates (19-5 and ranked No. 11), who edged the Tigers in their last meeting despite an 0-for-12 night by Tupelo sophomore sharpshooter Randy McCurry and who were one of the Tigers’ victims during Tupelo’s Cinderella run to the area finals last season. “We have to worry about them before we go anywhere.

“If we can survive our district, we can go two or three games into the regional, then we’ll worry about area.”

The Lady Tigers, who won only eight games last season and made an early playoff exit, are one of the state’s most improved teams this year and will enter Thursday’s opening-round playoff contest against Hanna (6-9) ranked No. 16 (their highest ranking of the season). But, like the Tigers, they face a huge district roadblock in a fifth-ranked Pittsburg squad (17-5) that dominated them back in November.

“You always want a better district draw than we got, because if you don’t win the district you’ve got a long row to hoe,” said Davis, whose stepdaughter, Byng move-in Katie Campbell (a 5-9 sophomore), is one of the major reasons for the Lady Tigers’ turnaround in his first season as head coach. “But we feel confident that if we go play well in the district we have a real good shot at winning it.

“Pittsburg beat us last time, but we were within five points when (forward) Katelyn Roberts got in foul trouble,” he added. “We’re happy with our season so far, but we still have goals. We set a goal at the first of the year to get to the area tournament. When you just win eight games the year before, you have to set a goal the kids can believe in. When we get to the area tournament, we might change our goal.”

While the Tupelo girls will open district play Thursday (at 6:30 p.m. against Hanna), the boys will won’t see their first postseason until Friday at 8 p.m. against Calvin (6-14). Pittsburg’s girls will meet the host Calvin girls at 8 p.m. Thursday, and the Pirates will face Hanna (1-15) at 6:30 p.m. Friday, setting up likely showdowns between Tupelo and Pittsburg in both district championship games (girls at 6:30 and boys at 8 p.m.) Saturday.

The Tupelo-Pittsburg contests could be among the most attractive in district play for area teams as Classes A and B open the postseason this weekend.

Elsewhere in Class B, the Sasakwa girls (11-11) will meet Moss (10-11) at 6:30 p.m. and the Sasakwa boys (5-15) will face Maud (14-8) at 8 p.m. Thursday at Maud; the Mill Creek boys (18-5) are a heavy favorite in their district and will open play at home Thursday at 8 p.m. against winless Springer, while the Lady Bullfrogs (1-21) will meet Thackerville (5-14) at 6:30; the Wanette girls (7-13) drew an opening-round bye and will face the winner of Friday’s 6:30 p.m. contest between Asher (2-19) and Paoli (11-7) for the district title at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, while the Wanette and Asher boys face each other at 8 p.m. Friday.

In Class A, Roff, Allen and Stonewall will all host district tournaments beginning Friday, and, although the third-ranked Roff boys (21-1) and the fifth-ranked Stonewall girls (22-1) are heavy favorites in their respective districts, a couple of others figure to have interesting championships contests — among them the likely match-up between host Stonewall (13-10) and 15th-ranked Stratford (17-3) in their boys district title game and the probable boys showdown between Allen (12-8) and a Stuart club (coached by former Wanette head man Matt Pierce) that improved to 11-11 on the season with an upset of Pittsburg last week.

No area teams with winning records face a tougher district draw than the boys and girls from Tupelo, however, and this weekend should go a long way toward deciding the eventual postseason fate of both clubs — especially with Red Oak (boys 17-3 and ranked No. 10, girls 15-4 but unranked) — lurking in the regional and the top-ranked Stringtown boys (22-0) and the ninth-ranked Coleman girls (21-3) looming as tough area roadblocks.

Weller’s club overcame a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to upset Stringtown 55-54 in the area semifinals last season and eventually fell to Butner in the final to finish 22-10 and miss the state tournament by one game despite not being ranked in the top 20 for one day all season. McCurry and Cameron Mann were the second and third-leading scorers on that team as freshmen, and a third starter, junior guard William Boaz, is also back, but Weller said his club has spent most of this season trying to replace the leadership of 6-5 Daniel Ingram and point guard Cody Pearce — both four-year starters.

“We were missing experience, size and leadership when the season began,” Weller said. “I think we’re a lot better now in all three areas. “Our freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore, and our sophomores aren’t sophomores. We’ve got more experience, and we’re playing with a lot more confidence now and believe in what we can do.”

Mann — arguably the state’s toughest 5-10 forward — and McCurry (the team’s best outside shooter) are both averaging over 14 points per game this season, and Boaz and junior point guard Casey McCollum (a move-in from Coalgate who, like Pearce, is Weller’s nephew) are both capable scorers and solid rebounders. But the most obvious difference on the floor for the Tigers since the start of the season is 6-6 junior Jason Wyszynski, who, although not the offensive player Ingram was, has improved steadily to give Tupelo some badly needed height, defense and rebounding.

“Jason gave us some size we were missing when Daniel graduated,” Weller noted. “And when we have Cameron and Jason in there together, it gives us more flexibility in what we can do.”

“We hadn’t shot the ball well all year, but we’re starting to knock down some open shots,” he added. “That just comes with confidence.”

Davis, meanwhile, has perhaps the area’s best 1-2 scoring punch in Campbell (13.5 ppg.) and junior Kendra Pearce (19.5 points and eight rebounds per game), and their supporting cast of Roberts, Brittanie Williams (9.7 ppg.) and Desiree Bell (8.5 ppg.) have been solid all season.

“When Katie and Kendra get going, it opens up things for the other girls,” Davis said. “The other girls understand their roles, and a lot of our success lately (the Lady Tigers’ only loss in their last nine games was to Stonewall in the semifinals of last month’s S.T.A.R. Tournament at Allen) is because we’re starting to play defense. As long as you play defense, you give yourself a chance to win.”

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