Ten area high school basketball teams remain alive in the hunt for a state championship.
First, they’ll have to navigate this week’s Northwest Regional tournament at Wallace State-Hanceville.
It’s a familiar venue to some, a new experience for others and to at least one program, a pleasant surprise.
Play begins Tuesday for Class 2A teams and continues with Class 1A on Wednesday and Class 3A and 4A on Thursday. Championship games are scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the local group of regional qualifiers is the Shoals Christian’s girls team.
The Flame (11-16) won nine of their 24 regular-season games but turned things around at the right time, winning two of their last three.
They upset Class 1A No. 3 Covenant Christian in their Area 16 tournament opener and won their sub-regional at Tharptown on a last-second shot, 53-51, to make the program’s first regional appearance.
Shoals Christian coach Carl Bullard credits the return of senior guard Grace Matthews as providing a late-season spark.
Matthews came back at the beginning of February after recovering from surgery to repair a broken wrist, which had kept her sidelined previously this season.
Averaging 12 points a game, she has provided some scoring balance to accompany point guard Lacey Lindley’s 15 points a game.
“It’s quite unexpected, I suppose,” Bullard said of his team’s regional berth. “Getting Grace back has helped us. Not only is she an asset shooting the ball, but also with leadership. It all started coming together and our players started realizing their roles at the right time. I’m proud of these kids. They never gave up.”
The Flame open regional play against fourth-ranked Lynn (29-1) on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Red Bay, R.A. Hubbard, Brooks and Lauderdale County are the other area girls teams who will make the trip to Hanceville.
Red Bay, a state runner-up last season, is making its sixth straight regional appearance, while Lauderdale County, The defending 3A champion, is going for the third time n four years.
LCHS opens against Winfield (24-6) on Thursday at 3 p.m. and hopes to use its experience as an advantage.
“I think our players have really stepped their game up and they’re peaking at the right time,” LCHS coach Brant Llewellyn said. “I’ve noticed a real difference in how our players are in preparation and before the games in the postseason.”
On the boys’ side, Brooks, Mars Hill, Hatton, Shoals Christian and R.A. Hubbard have secured regional berths.
Class 3A No. 2 Mars Hill (26-5) opens against Winfield (20-8) on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. Making their seventh straight regional appearance with a roster that includes seven seniors, the Panthers have plenty of experience in this environment.
“Having been there before helps in calming everybody, and playing in big games there helps too,” Mars Hill coach Mike Mitchell said. “This is a veteran bunch. They don’t panic. It’s hard to read them sometimes, but they come to play.”
Hatton (18-9) is making its first regional trip since 2004 and will open against Cold Springs (18-10) on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.
Brooks (26-7) is making its first regional appearance since 2009. The Lions, who have overcome a rash of injuries this season, open against Butler (15-11) on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. It’s a rematch of a Butler sub-regional win at Brooks in 2012.
Like the girls, Shoals Christian’s boys (15-14) have gotten hot at the right time. They open regional play against Class 1A No. 8 Marion County (24-6) on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
It’s the Flame’s first regional trip since 2010 and the third in program history, also having gone in 2006.
“It was a goal we had from last summer when we went to camp at Wallace State,” said Shoals Christian coach Patrick Odom, whose team won the Area 16 tournament. “It’s something we thought we could do. It might not have looked like it certain times during the year, but we are getting hot at the right time.
“We struggled putting the ball in the hole early in the season. But our defense has gotten better and lately that has led to more high percentage shots.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @bappster on Twitter.