Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hoop Fest's future ...

Over the next year or two, we're going to find out the answer to a question I've been asking — and fearing to ask — for nearly a decade:

What happens to Marshall County's Hoop Fest when Steve Woodward is no longer around to run it?

The news that Woodward is no longer associated with the event calls into question whether or not the event can sustain its status as one of the nation's top high school basketball events.

Will nationally prominent programs like Oak Hill Academy, Findlay Prep and St. Benedict's keep coming if Woodward isn't running the show? Can Marshall maintain the contacts and goodwill that Woodward has established in high school basketball circles and keep the talent coming to Draffenville?

Already, indications are that some schools committed to the Hoop Fest won't be inclined to visit with Woodward out of the picture. We'll have a better idea when Marshall unveils the final product sometime this spring or summer.

State champs galore: This year's event featured five state champions, two state runners-up and one state final four squad.

The state champs were Marietta Wheeler (Georgia Class 5A), Columbus Northland (Ohio Division I), Memphis White Station (Tennessee Class 3A), Chicago Whitney Young (Illinois Class 4A) and Jackson Callaway (Mississippi Class 4A).

Massac County (Illinois Class 2A) and Jackson Provine (Mississippi Class 5A) were runners-up and Memphis Briarcrest (Tennessee Class 2A private schools) was beaten state semifinals. Duncanville (Texas Class 5A) was beaten by one point by nationally-ranked Cedar Hill in the state quarterfinals.

USA Today hasn't released their final rankings with the national high school tournament scheduled for this weekend, but at the moment there are four teams that played at Hoop Fest in the top 25, including No. 1 Findlay Prep and No. 2 Oak Hill Academy. St. Benedict's is at No. 8 and Northland checks in at No. 16.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Former 'Bred Witzel on verge of state title ...

Massac County isn't southern Illinois' only state championship hopeful this weekend. Woodlawn, located near Mount Vernon, beat Lewistown 56-44 in Friday's Class A semifinals and will play or a state title on Saturday afternoon at Peoria's Carver Arena.

Woodlawn's coach is Shane Witzel, who was the starting shortstop on the Murray State baseball team that won the Ohio Valley Conference title in 1991. Witzel had a brief foray into minor league baseball — as a pitcher, surprisingly — but returned to his alma mater after getting released by the Cincinnati Reds' organization in the spring of 1994.

"I don't know if I thought I would end up doing this," Witzel said. "When I was younger, I wanted to coach college baseball. I had some good role models — my high school coach, Tom Koppel, and (former 'Breds mentor Johnny) Reagan. They were such quality people, I thought everyone in this profession did things the right way."

Woodlawn is happy that Witzel chose another course of action. He has averaged nearly 20 wins per season in 13 years as the Cardinals' head coach, and this year's team will take a 30-1 record into the championship game against either Macon Meridian or Annawan.

Witzel, 38, was also the school's baseball coach for several years, but relinquished that job last summer. With less demands on his time, he may be able to make it back to Murray sometime.

"I went to Homecoming a couple of years ago and ran into my old second baseman ... I looked at him and he looked at me, and we realized we're a little heavier than we used to be," Witzel said. "I don't get down there or talk to those people as much as I should."

Update: Witzel's Cardinals fell 63-53 to Macon Meridian in the state championship game, hours before Massac County lost to Seton Academy in the Class 2A final.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The homestretch ...

A few random observations as high school basketball approaches its climax:

I can only imagine that a lot of fans around the state saw the score of the boys' First Region final — Graves County 49, Marshall County 45 in overtime — and laughed and chalked it up to the usual slowdown snoozefest for which this region, rightfully or not, has built up a reputation for providing.

Especially when the championship game in the neighboring Second Region was a 95-82 win for Christian County over Henderson County.

To the contrary ... in my mind, it goes down as one of the best and most exciting finals in the last two decades.

The pace wasn't slow, even if the score doesn't look like it. Chalk that up to solid defense and some poor shooting, some of which was caused by the solid half-court defense that both teams played.

• Marshall guard Scott McKenty, refused to blame an off-night (a season-low seven points) on what appears to be a broken left (non-shooting) hand, but one has to think it affected his game.

In any case, Marshall coach Gus Gillespie was impressed with McKenty's fortitude.

"The kid has played part of the season with a bad ankle and a bad foot," Gillespie said. "There was no way he was going to sit out this one. He's a tough kid."

• A lot of people were asking today "What's gotten into Graves County?"

The quick, one-word answer ... defense. Graves held its three regional tournament opponents to an average of 42 points, and it turned in some especially good work in the semifinals and finals.

Graves didn't let McKenty and Calloway's Brock Simmons get off the shots they wanted, and the Eagles were especially tough at stopping both teams' point guards — McKenty and Calloway's Chris Dobbins — from penetrating and creating opportunities for teammates.

• There will be some local ties at the boys' Sweet 16. David Henley, a starter on Carlisle County's 1983 state runner-up squad, has Covington Holmes at Rupp Arena for the fourth time in five seasons. Holmes is considered the tournament favorite by some, especially since Scott County was beaten by Lexington Catholic in the 11th Region final.

One of Mason County's assistants is Kelly Carwile, who has been a head coach at Webster County and Lyon County and served as an assistant at Graves County and Hopkinsville.

And give the old Fifth District a hand — two of its native sons are still coaching. Christian County is back at Rupp for the third time in four seasons under coach Kerry Stovall, a Lyon County alum. Bowling Green is coached by D.G. Sherrill, a Caldwell County product.

• Several other coaches with area ties nearly took their teams to Lexington.

Boone County, which lost to Covington Holmes in the Ninth Region title game, is coached by Greg McQueary, who played at Murray State, was an assistant at Graves County in the early 1990s and was Caldwell County's head coach from 1999-2004.

The Rebels had upset Holmes late in the regular season and fell 32-29 in the regioal final.

Allan Hatcher (surely we don't need to rehash his background) reached the 14th Region finals for the second straight year, again losing to archrival Hazard. This time, it was 51-48 in overtime.

Hazard and Perry Central may be the state's most heated rivalries — think of Graves County and Mayfield and ratchet it up a few notches. In fact, things have gotten so intense that Hazard's school board has decreed that the schools won't play each other in any sport next season.

And there are the other connections between the programs. Hatcher was hired to replace Allan Holland, who had been the only coach in the history of the school before leaving two years ago after he got into a dispute with the superintendent. Holland was scarfed up pretty quickly ... by Hazard.

Then last season, in Hatcher's first year, he was starting a freshman point guard named Eric Back that transferred to Hazard at the semester break.

Just one more log on an already-roaring fire.

• Some were surprised, and some even heartened, to see Scott County fall in the 11th Region final.

It wasn't a total shock, given that Scott center Richie Phares went down with a torn ACL in the regional semifinals. Still, the Cardinals had plenty of firepower with Division I prospects Dakotah Euton, Chad Jackson and Ge'Lawn Guyn, all of whom have transferred in from other schools over the last two years.

• Massac County steps into a star-studded final four at the Illinois Class 2A state tournament at Peoria. The Patriots are guaranteed two games, as Illinois plays a third-place game preceding the championship game.

Call the Patriots' semifinal against No. 1 Marshall the southern state title game. Marshall, about 20 minutes west of Terre Haute, Ind., has a pair of Indiana State signees (6-4 guards and twins Lucas and Logan Eitel) and has the size that could give Massac some problems if it gets a lead and can settle back into a zone.

The other semifinal pits Winnebago, from the Rockford area, against Seton Academy from South Holland, a south suburb of Chicago. Seton is a Catholic school that was an all-girls institution until about five years ago, and its team has at least four Division I prospects, including a point guard that has signed with Ohio University and a shooting guard that will play at Northern lllinois.

• Marshall County's Hoop Fest should have a heavy Kentucky flavor next season. Founder Steve Woodward has commitments from several of the state's top teams, including Covington Holmes, Lexington Catholic, Scott County, Louisville Ballard, Jeffersontown, South Laurel, Perry Central and the newly-consolidated Muhlenberg County. Christian County and Warren Central remain possibilities.

Woodward is ended his one-year association with WazooSports.com, which was the event's major sponsor in each of the last two seasons. At the moment, he is negotiating with Marshall to run the event as sort of an independent contractor.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rogers to Warren Central ...

Graves County football coach Mike Rogers' flirtation with Warren Central wasn't the most well-kept secret in western Kentucky.

Rogers has done solid work in five seasons at Graves, leading the Eagles to a 34-22 record and a couple of playoff wins, those coming in 2005 and 2006.

Warren Central is considered one of the better jobs in Class 5A, even though the Dragons have been stuck in a district with archrival Bowling Green since Kentucky went to the six-class format in 2007. There has been some speculation that Warren Central could lose some students to the new South Warren High that is expected to open in the fall of 2010, and that such a move could drag the Dragons down to Class 4A.

Two big nights ... four big games

Six teams — four in western Kentucky and two in southern Illinois — begin this week with legitimate state tournament hopes. The First Region semifinals are Monday night at Murray State University's Regional Special Events Center, with the region's "Big Four" (Paducah Tilghman, Marshall County, Calloway County and Graves County) playing for a spot in Tuesday night's championship game.

About two hours to the north, Massac County will put its 31-1 record and top-10 state ranking on the line against Breese Central in the Illinois Class 2A supersectional at Southern Illinois University.

Let's take a look at the three matchups we know about — the First Region semifinals and Massac vs. Breese:

Paducah Tilghman vs. Marshall County: The first question ... will Marshall County coach Gus Gillespie employ the same smaller starting lineup he used against guard-oriented Carlisle County against the Tornado?

Jamie Dowdy, the Marshals' 6-foot-5, 220-pound center, was on the bench in favor of shooting guard Tanner Wilson when Marshall took the floor against Carlisle. Gillespie maintained it wasn't for disciplinary reasons, as Dowdy was sporting a black eye that reportedly stemmed from an off-the-court incident over the previous weekend.

The move worked well, and it would be tough to expect the Marshals to guard Tilghman's quicker, smaller club with both Dowdy and forward Denver Seay on the floor. Indeed, Carlisle star Caleb Hardy was able to get both of Marshall's big guys in some foul trouble.

Expect forward Matt Fletcher to get the assignment of guarding Tilghman point guard Josh Forrest, perhaps with some occasional help from swingman Josh Madding. And the Marshals will do their best to get Tilghman in a halfcourt game, where it can try to assert its size and bulk advantage on the block.

Tilghman's biggest question is what defense to employ to give itself the best chance to contain guard Scott McKenty, the best combination scorer and creator in the region? Tornado coach Brad Stieg isn't saying, but it's a good bet he will show a little bit of everything — a little 3-2 zone, which Stieg often likes to use against three-guard alignments, some man-to-man and maybe even some junk against McKenty.

Calloway County vs. Graves County: Why have the Lakers won 11 in a row? One of the biggest reasons has been the play of point guard Chris Dobbins, who has been more aggressive with dribble penetration and is currently shooting the ball well from the 3-point line.

Forward George Garner's ability to penetrate and score over bigger defenders figures to cause problems for the Eagles, and the Lakers will need some perimeter scoring from sophomores Brock Simmons and Sean Thompson.

Graves needs some quality guard play — point guard Jesse Anderson has shown flashes of brilliance from the perimeter and Tevin Hill's play is usually the best barometer of what the Eagles bring to the table on a given night.

And the coaches' battle is always interesting. Calloway's Bruce Lane and Graves' Terry Birdsong are longtime colleagues and close friends. Lane was Birdsong's assistant for nine seasons, eight at Calloway and one at Caldwell County, and succeeded his former boss when Birdsong left for Graves two years ago. Expect a close-to-the-vest defensive battle.

Massac County vs. Breese Central: It's a classic battle of size vs. quickness. If Breese Central's roster is to be believed, the Cougars have five starters standing between 6-3 and 6-6, and knowledgable sources in the St. Louis area report that Breese has the low-post game that could cause the Patriots some problems.

On the other hand, it doesn't appear that Breese Central has played a team with Massac's speed and athleticism, and Massac might be best served by getting its opponent in the transition game as much possible. With the Cougars' size, a zone defense could really cause Massac some problems with establishing dribble penetration.

The winner advances to the Class 2A semifinals on Friday night at Peoria's Carver Arena against either undefeated Marshall's guard-oriented club or a Stanford Olympia squad that sort of resembles Breese Central.

Call it the downstate championship. The other semifinal will pit a Chicago-area Catholic-school power — either Hales Franciscan or Seton Academy — against Princeton or Winnebago.