Ask any local basketball player or coach and they’ll tell you the real season starts tomorrow.
The 41st District tournament begins Tuesday at the Frankfort Convention Center with the girls basketball teams of Western Hills and Franklin County tipping off at 6:30 p.m.
On the boys side, Franklin County and Frankfort High square off Tuesday at 8:15 p.m.
Action continues Wednesday with the Frankfort High girls playing Woodford County at 6:30 p.m. followed by the boys game between Woodford County and Western Hills.
The girls championship game is set for Friday at 6:30 p.m. with the boys championship to follow at 8:30.
The last time the boys basketball teams of Frankfort High and Franklin County met, the Panthers held a 17-point lead going into the final quarter of play and looked well on their way to a blowout win.
But the Flyers never quit playing and outscored FHS 24-6 in the final quarter to win 67-66.
That game – which happened nearly seven weeks ago – had an impact on both teams but fans shouldn’t expect a similar showing tomorrow night when the two teams square off at the Frankfort Convention Center.
FCHS coach Scott Chalk said his team wasn’t prepared mentally for the game back on Jan. 4.
“We came out flat that game because of how bad we’d beaten them the first time,” he said.
The first three quarters served as a wake-up call for the Flyers, and if you ask Chalk, he’s glad it happened.
“It’s a positive that they played us so close going into this district game,” he said. “Because we could’ve come out flat in the district if they hadn’t played us close.”
That game was also a lesson learned for the Panthers.
“We learned the best approach for our team to finish games,” FHS coach Matthew Yates said. “I think we took the approach in that game to hold on instead of playing to win. That killed the aggressiveness that we played with all game and it cost us.”
Chalk and the Flyers will benefit tremendously from Logan Woodside’s presence down low. Woodside returns Tuesday after missing several games with a thumb injury.
“He’s a good scorer inside,” Chalk said. “He’s had games where he’s scored 17 or 18 points. He’s also played a lot of varsity basketball so there’s a confidence level there that helps you.”
Woodside will have to contend with FHS’ Aaron Jackson, who’s one of the state leaders in rebounding. While Yates said it would be ideal to feed him the ball down low, Jackson will find a way to create shots for himself.
“Aaron finds a way to get the ball himself when we can’t,” Yates said. “That’s why he’s averaging 15 rebounds a game.”
Chalk said FHS is a tough match-up for his team because they equal out the Flyers at every position, and while the Panthers have struggled to win some close games, he said you can’t underestimate their athleticism.
“They haven’t been super consistent all year but they’re always dangerous because they’re so athletic,” he said. “They can make some plays.”
If there are plays to be made, Yates said he hopes his team makes them on the defensive side of the ball.
“I normally say we have to shoot it well, but playing in a gym we don’t play in a lot, what happens if we don’t shoot it well?” he said. “We absolutely have to be a better defensive team. We’re working hard to prepare for that and maybe we can throw a few new wrinkles at them.”
Western Hills faces the daunting task of shutting down Woodford County and its resurgent big man Jay Johnson, who is still recovering from knee surgery but has shown flashes of his old brilliance this season.
Thankfully for WHHS fans, first-year coach Steve Wooldridge has an idea of how to do just that.
“We’re going to pack it in on him and make sure we have two big guys on him at all times,” he said. “We have to make it hard for him to score and concentrate on our rebounding. We absolutely can’t give him any second shots.”
Stopping Johnson is just a part of Wooldridge’s plan for taking down the Yellowjackets.
The coach said he’ll use the same blueprint he did in his team’s Jan. 17 meeting with WCHS, a game that the Wolverines lost 65-52 but also saw WHHS shrink its margin of defeat from 16 to 13.
The first match-up between WHHS and WCHS saw the Yellowjackets prevail 69-53.
With any luck, the Wolverines hope to reverse the trend in Wednesday’s game.
“The main thing we’ve got to do is slow the pace of the game down,” Wooldridge said. “Try to turn it into a three quarter game instead of a four quarter game.
“We have to take care of the basketball,” he added. “We’ve got to have more possessions than they do. It’s all about clock management at this point.”
One thing that’s haunted WHHS all season is what Wooldridge refers to as “a three-minute stretch where we don’t score.” He said the scoreless stretches have cost his team countless games, turning close contests into 15-point losses.
Headed into the biggest game of the season, Wooldridge said he isn’t as concerned about a three-minute stretch.
“We’re always worried about it happening but it’s been better here recently,” he said. “At the same time, we can’t score 70 or 80 points so we have to get it down to 50 or 60 points.”
Slowing down the red-hot Yellowjackets will be easier said than done. WCHS has won 10 of its last 12 games and averaged 65.7 points during that stretch.
Woodford lost its last game of the regular season Friday, falling to Collins 52-48. The only loss for WCHS during its prior 11 games was to a Scott County team that clobbered Franklin County 88-57 and has two players committed to Division I basketball teams.
But make no mistake – Wooldridge and the Wolverines are up to the task of stopping WCHS.
“My guys haven’t quit,” Wooldridge said. “They’re working hard for me. As a first-year coach, I put more pressure on myself than anybody else does. But that also means I’m very motivated to succeed.”
Although the girls basketball teams of Western Hills and Franklin County fall at opposite ends of the district bracket, both teams share one thing in common – injuries.
FCHS has of course played nearly the entire season without star Ashli Mayes, who suffered a knee injury in December, and now must deal with the absence of Nannilena White, who suffered a shoulder injury Feb. 7.
WHHS star Stephine Sparkman is healthy but coach Jody Hellard has had to deal with injuries to Taylor Slade (ankle) and Becca Harrod (knee).
For the Lady Flyers, winning Tuesday will mean rising to the occasion.
“Obviously it’s win or go home,” FCHS coach Joey Thacker said. “Our kids need to understand that. We’ll put a lot of time into going over the little things for tournament time.”
Hellard said his team will have to be playing at its peak to win.
“We’ve got to play our best game of the year,” he said. “We’ve got to finish our shots, block out and take care of the basketball. We’re averaging 25 to 30 turnovers a game. I know we’re young but that’s no excuse.
“The bottom line is you can’t beat anybody averaging 25 to 30 turnovers a game,” Hellard added.
The Lady Wolverines haven’t won a game since Dec. 27 but are catching the Lady Flyers at a vulnerable time. FCHS has lost eight of its last 11 games dating back to Jan. 18.
One thing that will work in WHHS’ favor is an offense that Hellard said is much improved.
“Our offense has picked up,” he said. “We can score better than we did at the beginning of the year. But we have to take care of the ball because we know they’re going to pressure the ball at all times.”
While detrimental in the short term, injuries have helped both teams develop more depth as younger players have stepped in to fill the void left by their more experienced teammates.
On the flip side, younger players might fail to understand the gravity of a district tournament game. That doesn’t seem to concern Thacker and Hellard, however.
“With teenagers, there are no guarantees,” Thacker said. “You have to come out with confidence and confidence comes from being prepared.
“All you can ask for as a coach is that your players come out with a little pep in their step,” he added. “That’s really not up to me, though. That’s up to the people on the floor.”
Hellard echoed the same sentiment.
“The district is what we shoot for all season,” he said. “If you come out and you’re not ready to play a district game, then you need to rethink playing basketball.”
There’s an old saying in sports that it’s difficult to beat the same team three times in one season.
That’s the challenge facing the Frankfort High girls basketball team as it takes on Woodford County Wednesday night.
FHS completed its first season sweep of WCHS in recent memory this year, knocking off the Lady Yellowjackets 37-30 on Dec. 3 and beating them again Jan. 28, 53-42.
“These girls had never beaten Woodford before,” FHS coach Deron Norman said. “It helps us to have beaten them this year. It’s not going to be easy to get that third win.”
However, the Lady Panthers will have an advantage Wednesday that they didn’t have in the previous two meetings – their full roster.
“We’ve haven’t played with our full team yet because we’ve had girls hurt,” Norman said. “This will be the first time we’ve had our entire team. So that adds some freshness to it.”
FHS returns two major contributors to the lineup, thus adding greater depth to its bench.
“We have Cori Cunningham coming back into the mix,” Norman said. “Shanae Brown is playing this time around. We’ll have greater subs to go in and help us turn up the pressure.”
Norman said he won’t alter a game plan that yielded two victories against WCHS.
“We’ve had success against Woodford this year but they’re a great program and I think it’s going to be a battle,” he said. “We’re going to do what we did before – control the tempo, play solid defense and knock down the shots.”
Much like Western Hills and Franklin County, FHS will benefit from increased playing time for its younger players when starters went down with injuries.
The Lady Panthers also feel confident because their roster is loaded with players who excel in multiple areas of the game, most notably ball-handling.
“We’ve played a lot of girls at point and made them handle the basketball,” Norman said. “Having these stretches where girls would be out for a couple games and other players had to step up – it benefits your team down the road.”
To put it simply, Norman can throw a player in wherever he wants and expect good results.
“Our girls, no matter where we stick them, are ready to go out and contribute,” he said.
Norman said his team is ready for the pressure of a district tournament game as many of the players have logged minutes in basketball tournaments outside of high school.
“These girls play outside of school, in AAU, in big tournaments so they understand how this works,” he said. “We just have to do it together as Frankfort High.”