In 2010, the Tupelo Lady Tigers were so close to the Class B state tournament they could almost smell the popcorn at the Big House. Coach Bill Godwin said last season’s near-miss has made his veteran club hungry for more.
“Our goal is to get farther each year than we did the year before,” said Godwin, who took over the Tupelo girls program from Brian Davis before the 2008-2009 season and led the Lady Tigers to within a game of the state tournament last spring. “Last year, we made the area finals; this year our goal is to make the state tournament.
“I think we have the potential,” he added. “I walked into a good situation here, because Coach Davis had done a good job, and I’ve tried to continue what they were doing.”
Tupelo entered the area tournament in the winner’s bracket last season and needed to win just one of its final two games to advance to Oklahoma City. But back-to-back losses to Moss and Caney sent the upstart Lady Tigers home just one victory short of their goal.
“Any time you lose you’re disappointed,” Godwin said. “Just because you’re sitting pretty doesn’t mean you have everything in your favor.
“Those two games came down to two things — the first thing was our free throw shooting was horrible in both games, and the second thing was we shot 20 percent in the third quarter in each game,” he recalled. “We were even at halftime in both games and we came out and laid an egg, then we missed our free throws down the stretch. One of our goals this year is to get better at free throws, and we’ve done that, and we’ve had good third quarters in games where we’ve had our starters on the floor. Our goal has been to finish games.”
Godwin has been forced to play his starters all four quarters only once so far this season. The Lady Tigers routed five of their first six opponents, with the bench playing most of the second half in every game except a Nov. 5 victory over Kiowa.
But with a move up to Class A this season and the toughest part of the schedule coming up, Godwin said his team still has a lot of work to do.
“I’m never happy I guess,” he said. “I’m happy with our work ethic, but we’ve still got a ways to go yet. I don’t know if we’ll be where we need to be by the time the (Pontotoc Conference) tournament starts (on Dec. 6 at Allen), but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Tupelo was seeded third in what should be a competitive girls bracket for the conference tournament. The host Lady Mustangs (the defending champions) are seeded No. 1, with unbeaten Stonewall (ranked No. 19 in Class A) No. 2 and Vanoss at No. 4.
“I think it will be a good tournament, and I think we’ll play well,” Godwin said. “This year it’s going to be very competitive, because several teams look fairly equal.”
Godwin could get an early preview of his team’s chances when the Lady Tigers host Vanoss and Stonewall in back-to-back games on Tuesday, Nov. 30, and Friday, Dec. 3.
“Our schedule does get tougher after the Thanksgiving break,” he noted. “We have Vanoss and Stonewall, then we play the conference tournament. I think the (former) S.T.A.R. Tournament (which will be the Roff Invitational in 2011) is going to be exciting this year, so I think the schedule will help us get ready for the playoffs.”
Shanna Davidson, who ranked in the top five among area girls in almost every major statistical category as a junior, is back for her senior season as the undisputed leader of a much deeper team than the one that went into the postseason last February. Godwin said Davidson has put up some impressive numbers so far, despite seeing limited playing time and being the focus of opposing defenses night in and night out.
“She’s added assists to her repertoire,” Godwin said of Davidson, who is averaging 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists through six games. “I know she would be averaging a double-double. In our first five wins, she played about half a game.
“We’ve seen some junk defenses, but the other girls have stepped up,” he said. “We’ve been able to exploit that, because the girls are confident enough in themselves. That’s when Shanna goes into ‘assist’ mode. Last year helped us because we saw it so often.”
When opposing defenses concentrate too much on Davidson, Godwin expects to turn to his other starters — seniors Grace Leland, Tamara Thompson and Chesna Henry and sophomore Kelsie Warner — and his new and improved bench — seniors Landra Nelson and Sam Stein and sophomore Kayley Sanders — to take up the slack.
“I mix it up — it depends on who we’re playing,” Godwin said. “Landra and Kayley (who missed two weeks with a knee injury) can also start, and Sam Stein (who saw her first action Friday after missing a year with a torn ACL) is back.
“Hopefully over the Thanksgiving break we’ll be able to get Kayley and Sam back to full speed,” he added. “That should really give us some added experience off the bench.”
Leland and Thompson have both increased their output this season to make up for the loss of last year’s second leading scorer, Megan Bray, to graduation.
“Grace (the team’s second leading scorer at 10 points per game) has really stepped up her game, and Tamara Thompson is averaging just over eight points and game and she’s got her rebounding average up over nine a game,” Godwin noted. “The big thing about this year that has changed is that our assist totals are going up. Our kids have played together long enough that they’re getting comfortable with each other.”
Warner struggled through an injury-plagued freshman season, and her return has given Godwinj another option offensively.
“Her thing is she’s been hurt a couple of times,” he explained. “This is the first time she’s gotten to play a lot, and she’s going to be a big help. She’s got a decent shot, and she can play forward or the two guard.”
Despite his team’s experience and perfect record so far, Godwin said the Lady Tigers will have plenty of room to improve as his bench players get healthy and assume more of a role.
“If our team continues to gell and becomes a unit and gets that trust, we’ll be fine,” he said. “I really believe as long as your kids have confidence in themselves and in the program, by the time you get to the end of the season you can do almost anything you want to do. It’s working so far.”
And Tupelo figures to have to improve to challenge for a state tournament berth in a new-look Class A, which added a lot of strong teams when the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association re-arranged the state’s four smallest classes following the 2009-2010 school year. “In Class A, we could realistically see three teams in our district from our conference,” he said. “You could have a great record and get sent home.
“(The realignment) makes it tough for everybody,” Godwin added. “You look at the Class B schools that moved up, and nearly all of them were in the area tournament last year. Basically the top 20 teams in Class B moved up to Class A. That’s a pretty big move, and that makes Class A a whole lot tougher. To me, it makes it more exciting, because I like the competition part of it.”
Godwin said the postseason experience gleaned from last season, coupled with his team’s added depth, could put the Lady Tigers in a good position for a state tournament run.
“I think we’re mentally tough and physically tough enough to do it,” he said. “I basically have nine kids who play a lot, and when they all get on the same page, we’re going to be fine.
“I’m having a great time — I have great kids, and Tupelo is a great school,” Godwin added. “Being here is a privilege.”