Fewer Cinderellas invited to state’s big dance

By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal

Two of the eight gold balls sitting in the trophy case at Ingomar High School’s gym honor the 1991 state champion Lady Falcons and the 1999 state champion Falcons.
Two very good basketball teams, Ingomar’s legendary coach Norris Ashley will tell you.
Two very good basketball teams who lost on a Friday night in the North Mississippi tournament, but lived to play, and win, another day in the Saturday “putout” game.
“We were fortunate to be the consolation winners those years,” Ashley said. “Sometimes the two best teams play each other on Friday night. That’s just the way the bracket is set up.”
Ashley’s ’91 Lady Falcons lost to Tremont in the North semifinals, but rebounded to beat Ethel and advance to state as a No. 3 team. They captured the 1A gold ball with a win against Biggersville.
The ’99 Falcons lost to Houlka in the North semifinals then defeated Montgomery County in the putout game. At state, Ingomar defeated Houlka in a rematch for the 1A state title.
This season, however, a good team losing Friday night in the North state tournament will be headed home under the MHSAA’s new state tournament format that eliminates a No. 3 team advancing to Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.
North play begins on Monday night mainly for girls teams. Most boys games will be played on Tuesday.
The MHSAA switched to a Final Four format after it expanded to six classifications for the 2009-10 school year. Now, only the North and South champions and runners-up will play at The Big House.
MHSAA executive director Ennis Procter cited financial concerns for member schools as the determining factor in making the change.
South Panola girls coach Ralph Stallings, who directed a No. 3-seed Bruce Lady Trojans team to a 2A state championship in 2002, hopes to see the MHSAA reverse its stance on eliminating the No. 3 team.
“This takes away from a group of kids, and it’s all about the kids,” he said. “I think this (Final Four) is going to take away from the state tournament.”
New Albany girls coach John Stroud, whose team is expected to be a contender for this season’s 4A state championship, says a lot of good teams could be watching the state tournament from the stands.
“The MHSAA does these brackets a year ahead of time, so you could have the two best teams from the North in the same bracket and playing Friday night in the semifinals,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the kids to get to Jackson.”
Stroud’s first New Albany boys team won a 3A state championship in 1986 after advancing to Jackson as a No. 3 seed.
“You take four teams out of the division to North half, but you only take two teams to Jackson?” Stroud added, questioning the MHSAA’s postseason logic.
Former Houston girls coach Lanny Gooch took teams to Jackson 11 years, but his Lady Hilltoppers won just once, in 1985 as a No. 3 seed.
“That’s the only time we went as a No. 3,” Gooch said. “We lost to Carthage in the semifinals then beat New Albany in the putout game.”
Houston, led by future Ole Miss star Cynthia Autry, defeated Carthage at state and beat New Hope for the 3A championship.
“I think sending three teams to state is the right thing to do, and not just because we won as a No. 3,” Gooch said. “A lot of times the No. 3 team is the best team.”
However, the playoff format is set for this season, and it includes no No. 3 team. If anything, it will make Friday night’s North semifinals a lot more interesting.
“It’s not going to make me coach any different, but you do realize you don’t have that fail-safe this time,” Ashley said.

Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593 or gene.phelps@djournal.com