Three county teams ready for Final Four appearances

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

It’s been a historic basketball season for several local teams, and that’s continuing into the Final Four at Legacy Arena inside the BJCC from Wednesday, Feb. 26, through Saturday, Feb. 29.

For Oak Mountain and Shelby County, the county will see history, while for the Spain Park Jaguars will be making their third trip to the Final Four in the last four years.

Each team enters the week with one outcome in mind—a championship. But what each has done to this point is almost as remarkable as the blue map they would hoist should they claim the championship.

For the first time in school history, the Oak Mountain boys and Shelby County girls will see their basketball teams gracing the floor inside Legacy Arena as a Final Four team, and both went down different paths to get here.

The Eagles, who are still a relatively young team with three sophomores in the starting five, were able to overcome losing in the first round of the area tournament a season ago to this year winning the area tournament, winning a Sweet 16 matchup and winning an Elite Eight matchup to advance to their first Final Four in the school’s history.

Sitting at 22-8 overall on the season and as winners of 13 in a row, Oak Mountain beat teams like Thompson and Hoover multiple times to claim the area crown and has ousted Huntsville and Sparkman in the first two rounds of the playoffs, scoring 60 points in each win.

But now comes the real challenge.

While the Eagles have the talent to win a championship with great shooting, great guard play and a strong post presence, they’ll be taking on No. 2 Robert E. Lee in the semifinals on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 10:30 a.m.

The Generals have lost just one game this season and boast an overall record of 31-1. Their only loss came by one point, 83-82, to defending 6A champion Pinson Valley, and they’ve beaten Central-Phenix City and Jeff Davis easily in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

While it will be a first for the Eagles, creating nerves, it’s a team that will bring one of the best student sections and fan bases to the tournament and one that has experience in several tight games against good teams this season.

Should Oak Mountain win, the Eagles will take on either three-time defending state champ Mountain Brook or Fairhope in the championship game on Saturday at 5:45 p.m.

Like Oak Mountain, the Shelby County girls will be making their first trip to the Final Four as well.

The special trip to the state finals for the Wildcats comes after heartbreak the last three years with losses in the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight once.

But with a group of four seniors that played and started on most of those teams, this was their main goal coming into the season.

Two years ago, it was a group of players that lost to Central-Tuscaloosa in the Elite Eight, keeping them one win short of the Final Four. But this year, Shelby County got the ultimate revenge by taking down the Falcons in the Elite Eight to punch that historic ticket to the Final Four.

It marks the final run for Maggie West, Skye Knighten-Lilly, Nataley Whitner and Aaliayah Cotton, who are all hoping to continue history right into the state championship game.

By taking down Central-Tuscaloosa, the Wildcats beat the defending 5A champs, and while they have a difficult matchup with 30-4 Madison Academy, they’ve proven they can beat the best of the best.

While Madison Academy has size similar to Central-Tuscaloosa, it’s a team that might want to run a bit more in transition. If that happens, Shelby County can also score points on the move which should lead to a compelling game.

Should the Wildcats pick up a win, they’ll take on either Center Point or Charles Henderson in the championship game on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 9 a.m.

After making it to the Final Four two straight years, Spain Park’s journey back began after losing to Hewitt-Trussville in the Elite Eight a season ago. A team the Jaguars had beaten four times in the regular season came out and dominated the Elite Eight matchup to get redemption and end Spain Park’s run at three straight Final Fours.

Since then, the Jags have had one goal in mind—get back.

This year, Spain Park has shown the passion to get redemption with wins over No. 1 Hoover, who is one of the favorites to claim the overall championship, as well as other big wins in a difficult schedule. But there path to redemption was no more evident than in their Elite Eight win against Vestavia Hills.

In almost the exact same situation as the year prior, the Jags were squaring off against an area foe they had beaten three times during the regular season, and again, it was difficult.

The Rebels came out and led for the majority of the first three quarters of the game, but Spain Park senior Sarah Ashlee Barker, who is regarded as the state’s best player, willed her team back with 21 points in the second half to pick up a 42-37 win.

After the win, head coach Mike Chase and Barker both eluded to the previous year and the heartbreak that went with it being a driving force going into the game, but specifically going into the second half and fourth quarter.

With that extra motivation, Barker turned into her usual dominant self, and the team started to play up to its capability.

Now, just two years remove from a championship, the Jaguars are back in the Final Four for the third time in four years looking for a third trip to the Class 7A championship game and second title in three years.

Sitting at 30-4, Spain Park’s quest for the title will start with 18-4 McGill-Toolen. That game will take place on Thursday, Feb. 27, at noon.

While both only have four losses, Spain Park has 12 more wins and has played a more difficult schedule, which gives them a strong chance to advance, but as was shown in the Elite Eight, if the Jags or Barker are off as a team, anything can happen. But, if they play like they did in the second half of that game, they’ll be the better team.

Experience should play a major factor as well with the Jags having advance to the championship game in each of their last two trips to the Final Four with Barker on the floor and Chase coaching.

Should they win, the Jaguars will take on either Hoover or Central-Phenix City in the championship game on Saturday at 4 p.m.

Regardless of outcome, each of the three teams from Shelby County is making history and will be remembered for all of this year’s remarkable accomplishments.