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Woodland girls feel the spotlight

Photo by Brian Paglia / Woodland girls basketball has grown accustomed to winning, but not like this season with the Lady Wolfpack on an 18-game winning streak and ranked in the top 10 for the first time in school history.

Photo by Brian Paglia / Woodland girls basketball has grown accustomed to winning, but not like this season with the Lady Wolfpack on an 18-game winning streak and ranked in the top 10 for the first time in school history.

Three keys to the game

1. Bacon vs. Clune

There isn’t much mystery when it comes to Dutchtown. The Lady Bulldogs’ success on offense hinges significantly on how well senior guard Domonique Clune is playing. A legit college prospect, Clune has the versatility to score from the outside with a solid jumpshot, drive to the basket and post up smaller defenders. It’s up to Woodland senior Care’ Bacon to stop her. That’s been Bacon’s role all season — guarding the opponent’s best player. She has the speed and athleticism to hang with Clune. “Her job is to keep her in single digits,” Woodland coach Ashley Maddox said.

2. Turnovers

It sounds so simple — the team with the most turnovers usually comes out with a loss. A cliche? Sure. But it’s more than that for Woodland. It’s their identity. Maddox has spent much of his first year as head coach sharpening the Lady Wolfpack’s defense. “Coach Maddox is a defensive-minded coach and I think that has made us better,” Woodland senior Morgan Jones said. And the Lady Wolfpack’s defense is all about creating turnovers that turn into transition baskets. But Dutchtown has an array of ball-handlers and isn’t turnover prone. “That might be something we have to be patient with,” Maddox said, “is a team that controls the ball really well.”

3. The first quarter

Both teams returned a bevy of experience and talent from solid teams a year ago, so there shouldn’t be many surprises in store. Dutchtown will likely stick with a half-court trap defense. Woodland will be athletic (and then some) at every position. So a strong start could be crucial to two teams who haven’t played from behind much this season. Whichever team can dictate their style early on should have an advantage as the game progresses. “We’ll know in the first quarter pretty much how the tone of the game is going to go based on can we handle their traps and can they handle our athleticism,” Maddox said.

Series history

A look at Dutchtown and Woodland’s all-time series record. Woodland leads the series 3-2.

2008-09: Dutchtown 49, Woodland 30

2010-11: Woodland 43, Dutchtown 30; Woodland 51, Dutchtown 45

2011-12: Dutchtown 47, Woodland 44; Woodland 64, Dutchtown 53

photo

Graphic by Brian Paglia

STOCKBRIDGE — At Woodland girls basketball practice Wednesday, Lindsey Reed’s shoes glowed highlighter yellow. Morgan Jones’ kicks were bubble-gum pink. The court was filled with a kaleidoscope of sneakers.

It’s the same for games. The Lady Wolfpack used to have team shoes, but that ended when Ashley Maddox was promoted from assistant to head coach before the season. He allows players to choose their own shoe.

It’s a small detail that reveals a lot about how Woodland has emerged as a Class AAAA playoff contender. The Lady Wolfpack (19-1) enter today’s big-time Region 4-AAAA game at Dutchtown (13-4) on an 18-game winning streak and ranked No. 8 by MaxPreps.com.

Players say they’re playing the most cohesive basketball ever with a confidence and excitement they credit to Maddox.

“I think [Maddox] is confident in us and trusts in us that we play better and have fun,” Reed said.

These are different times for Woodland. The Lady Wolfpack are certainly comfortable with winning after going 19-9 and 21-10 in 2010-11 and 2011-12, respectively, seasons that both ended in the first round of the state tournament. But 18-game win streaks and state rankings are new territory for Woodland.

Even when Woodland entered the top 10 for the first time, Maddox was skeptical. He admitted the Lady Wolfpack haven’t played the most challenging schedule. Their most notable victory is a 57-50 win over Jonesboro, a semifinalist last season. They didn’t play in a high-profile holiday tournament filled with powerhouse programs.

That was by design. Many urged Maddox to enter Woodland in a strenuous tournament, but he thought better. Rather than “get their heads beat in,” Maddox felt Woodland needed the confidence of winning a tournament, no matter the level of competition.

So if Woodland’s resume suffered, so be it.

But after 18 straight wins — including three to capture the Union Grove Holiday Invitational — apparently someone noticed.

“Exposure-wise I didn’t think our name was out there,” Maddox said. “I guess somebody’s seen us. We’re happy to get that kind of recognition. It puts a little bit of pressure on the girls, but it also gives them a new sense of accomplishment, a new goal.”

In many ways, Woodland’s rise this season was four years in the making.

The Lady Wolfpack’s senior core of Jones, Reed, Nicole Findura, Mecca Sneed and Care’ Bacon entered the program after Woodland suffered through a 3-win season. Jones was the only one who saw significant time on varsity as a freshman when Woodland went 9-18 in 2009-10. But the Lady Wolfpack grew up in a hurry, winning 30 games the past two seasons.

Woodland’s seniors built on those years together to develop unmatched chemistry on and off the court. There’s no drama about roles. Jones (11.0 ppg) and Reed (14.4 ppg) are the go-to scorers. At 6-foot, Findura controls the paint with a team-best 26 blocks and 4.6 rebounds per game. Bacon is a defensive-stopper charged with guarding the opponents’ best player.

“We’ve known each other for so long,” Jones said. “It’s like I know where everyone is [on the court]. We know what each other can do. And we back each other up. It’s just a love bond. It’s like family.”

Confident in his returning cast, Maddox’s big concern was whether the rest of the roster could develop quickly enough.

In came 6-foot freshman Zaundra Stevens, who has given Woodland the ability to pair her with Findura for more physical line-ups. In came junior guard Aaliyah Dotson, who has become the team’s best outside shooter.

“Those two have been a really great asset to our team,” Reed said.

They’ll need both to come ready to play against a Dutchtown team that has the advantage in strength of schedule and perhaps the county’s best scorer in guard Domonique Clune.

And as the Lady Wolfpack are starting to find out, they no longer have the luxury of anonymity. Tonight’s game will be the biggest test for Woodland since defeating Jonesboro. With the top 10 ranking, the Lady Wolfpack will enter with a bull’s-eye on their back, one that’s growing bigger and bigger with every victory.

That doesn’t seem to faze Woodland.

“Ranking doesn’t mean anything,” Jones said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day. We know each other and we know that stuff, but it’s different now having a target on our backs. We have a lot to carry. We don’t want to let down. ... I think that’s what makes us work hard and pushes us.”

“People say it’s a big game, but either way we’re going to play our same way, playing hard,” Reed said. “Nothing’s going to change.”