By Gary Lloyd
CLAY — Clay-Chalkville is not focused on the rankings.
It is focused on hard work.
Shortly after the varsity girls’ 74-60 loss to Class 6A No. 3 Shades Valley in the Jefferson County Tournament finals, first-year head coach Courtney Payne said her team and the Lady Mounties were comparable in guard play and in the post. Transition defense and Shades Valley’s press were the keys.
“They would crowd around to the ball,” Payne said of Shades Valley. “They played well off of the ball. Their press is tough.”
The Lady Cougars answered each Shades Valley bucket and briefly led by as many as three points late in the third quarter last Friday.
“That was the hardest we’ve played all season, without a doubt,” Payne said. “They stepped up above and beyond even I think what they thought they could do. They proved it to themselves.”
The girls stayed in the game despite senior sharpshooter Bria Bethea being out with a sprained ankle. Bethea is the team’s most consistent 3-point shooter, knocking down seven of them in a 64-59 win over No. 9 Gadsden City on Dec. 13. She’s the team’s second-leading scorer behind junior guard Kristian Hudson.
“I think our girls really stepped up without her,” Payne said. “She’s a big part of our team.”
Clay-Chalkville is 22-6, its losses by an average of 11.5 points per game. The losses are twice to Jeff Davis, twice to Gadsden City, to Hoover and to Shades Valley. A 10-point loss to Gadsden City and the 14-point loss to Shades Valley were played much closer than the final scores indicate.
But look at the wins, too. Clay-Chalkville opened this season with a 59-28 win over Class 5A No. 8 Center Point. It beat Class 6A No. 7 Lee-Huntsville 67-59 in November. It most recently won at Center Point, now No. 6 in Class 5A, 66-60. Its 22 wins are by an average of 21 points per game.
Despite the big wins, and taking into account the losses, Clay-Chalkville has yet to be nominated in the Alabama Sports Writers Association for Class 6A top 10 consideration this season. In fact, the rankings, which are released each Thursday, have shown the same top 10 in the same order for the past three weeks. The only difference in the Jan. 9 rankings was that two teams switched between No. 5 and No. 6. In the “others nominated” listing, the same seven teams — Austin (20-8), Baldwin County (17-4), Enterprise (19-9), Hoover (13-12), Lee-Montgomery (15-7), McGill-Toolen (19-5) and Murphy (15-6) — have been nominated the last two weeks.
“To tell you the truth, we’re not even looking at that,” Payne said. “That doesn’t matter to us. If we can come out and play basketball like (against Shades Valley), that’s what matters because at the end of the year, the teams that play the hardest will be the most successful. It takes care of itself.”
Hudson said the team may notice the rankings, but that it doesn’t get caught up in it.
“Opportunities come and go, and I think we’ll get a chance if we prove ourselves,” said Hudson, who scored 27 points against Shades Valley. “Coach continues to preach to play hard and see how far we get.”
On Feb. 6, Clay-Chalkville will play in the Class 6A, Area 9 tournament at Gadsden City. The Lady Cougars are the No. 2 seed and face third-seeded Oxford at 7:30 p.m. The winner takes on the winner of Gadsden City and Pell City at 6 p.m. Feb. 10 for the tournament championship. Hudson said the mindset hasn’t changed as the playoffs approach.
“I think we did come together more as a team like we did (against Shades Valley),” Hudson said. “If we take the same energy and mentality and same effort that we had, and take it anywhere, I think we’ll do great things.”
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.