E.A. Sports Today

Not seeing red

Several county basketball teams go through dress rehearsal in the run-up to their season openers next week

Faith Christian’s Thomas Curlee (3) goes in for a layup against Oxford in Thursday’s super scrimmage. On the cover, Oxford’s Xai Whitfield prepares to inbounds the ball against Alexandria.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD – Nobody purposely sets out to defend second place. You defend a state championship, for sure, but not coming up short even if you did get a trophy for getting to the title game. If anything, it should make them hungry for more.

If anyone questions the Oxford girls’ basketball team’s drive for more after coming up short in the Class 6A title game last year, all they have to do is watch the Lady Jackets warm up this season. The red T-shirts they’ll be wearing at the shoot-around tells it all.

“We don’t like red” is the message across the front. There’s a lot of meaning in the message, but suffice to say the state runner-up trophy is red.

“Getting there the first time is great, it’s exciting, but to me there’s a lot more pressure the next year because now you’ve got that potential after you’ve done that,” Oxford coach Melissa Bennett said Thursday night. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about. We’ve got a really stacked schedule. How are we preparing to defend that. How are we preparing to reach that same standard.

“We were disappointed after that (championship) game. You don’t go that far to play for No. 2. You go that far, you want No. 1. We’re hungry for No. 1. We don’t want to be No. 2. You’ve got to have all the intangibles, but a lot of it is the drive. That’s our focus,: The want to, the willing.”

It’s still early in the process although the season opener is less than a week away. The Lady Jackets just recently got their volleyball players and Thursday’s 16-minute scrimmage against Alexandria was the first time they’ve been able to have their starters play together.

Even in that limited time Bennett was most impressed with her team’s pace of play and overall execution.

“The pressure is there because that expectation now has been set,” Bennett said. “If you lose out in the area tournament every year then you don’t really have high standards, you don’t have those high expectations, but we’ve fought really hard to try to change that, to raise that expectation, to go from good to great.

“We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We do push hard for that drive because that drive to me is the most important thing. It’s not an expectation if we don’t fulfil it. Our goal is to fulfill that expectation. Our goal is to be right back where we were next year.”

The player who makes the Lady Jackets’ go is Xai Whitfield. Last season Bennett called Whitfield one of the best players in the state “when she turns it on,” and the then-sophomore supported the claim by averaging 14.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and leading the county in free throw and 3-point shooting percentage. She also was second in steals and third in assists.

This year, Bennett removed the qualifier.

“She’s not the same kid,” Bennett said. “Right now if I had to put my money on a player, I’d put my money on Xai Whitfield. She is playing her tail off, she is playing to her potential, she is playing hard, she is playing with a great motor. Her offensive skill has always been exceptional and now her defensive skill and defensive effort is matching that. I’m putting my money on Xai Whitfield.”

After the Oxford girls opened the night against Alexandria, the boys teams from Oxford, White Plains, Faith Christian and Hokes Bluff took the floor. Here’s a quick look at the county boys teams at the super scrimmage


Season opener: At Central-Phenix City, Nov. 12
Coach Joel VanMeter, are you ready for it?: We don’t have a choice. No, we’re not ready, but we’re going to go play. Our whole deal is can we get better every day. We’re so young. I start one guy right now who’s had varsity experience (Jaylen Alexander), that’s it, so like I said, we’re just trying to get better every day.
What did you want to see tonight?: A skilled team who shares the ball, gets good shots and works 1 vs. 5 defensively guarding the ball and rebounding.
Did you?: I wanted to see exactly what I saw offensively and defensively and I knew what I was going to see rebounding the basketball. For us to be able to be successful in some portion we’re going to have to really work at rebounding because we’re not very big. 
Best player: Freshman guard Jaylen Alexander (5.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 20-63 3s).
What are your expectations for him?: He’s a ninth-grader well beyond his years. If he’ll continue to do the things that he’s done to this point over the next four years he’s going to be someone who’s talked about very much in this area and state as a basketball player. 

Faith Christian

Season opener: At Westbrook Christian, Nov. 15
Coach Cory Hughes, are you ready for it?: We’re ready. We need to get in shape a little bit more, but we’re definitely ready and excited. (The opener), that’ll be kind of a temperature gauge to where this team is at in comparison to last year. We (split) two close games (with Westbrook) last year.
What did you want to see tonight?: Attention to detail and intensity.
Did you?: Our guys know our stuff like the back of their hand, but we want fine details. We can still turn it up a little more – there’s always room to get finer details – but overall I like what I see. 
Best player: Senior guard Thomas Curlee (19.0 ppg).
What are your expectations for him?: Thomas is a great scorer, he just has a knack for scoring. We expect when we need a bucket, we can get the ball to Thomas, Thomas will score for us. That being said, we run an equal-opportunity offense, which means anybody can score in our offense and we expect guys to get aggressive. Thomas’ job is not just to score for us, but to get his teammates scoring. That’s what I told Ethan (Richerzhagan) last year and what I’m preaching to Thomas this year. We’ve got to get other scorers in the mix. If we’ve got five guys out there who are a threat, we’re going to be tough.

White Plains

Season opener: Oxford at home, Nov. 15
Coach Chris Randall, are you ready for it?: No, not yet. We hadn’t installed any called plays; we didn’t run a play tonight, we just played. We’ve got install our motion offenses; we ran it this summer, so they know if from them, but we just got the football players back so we didn’t do anything without those guys. We’ll start Sunday night installing all that.
What did you want to see tonight?: Show some poise under defensive pressure and prove they could handle basketball in traffic without losing their composure.
Did you?: “We looked pretty poised putting the ball in the lane with bombs going off.”
Best player: Senior guard Luke Bussey.
What are your expectations for him: “Offensively, he’s probably our best player. He’s really improved defensively and continue to give it up and get it back. We have a tendency to dribble it too much; you’ve got to give it up and move and get it back.”

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