Local teams gear up for stretch run

By Tim Chambers
STAR Correspondent
With tournament time just around the corner, local teams are gearing up for the stretch run and trying to gain the best seed possible for the district and regional showdowns.
Volunteer, No. 10 in this week's AP Class AA poll, continues to lead the pack, but is not the clear-cut favorite to bring home the title. District 1-AA is wide open with anyone capable of pulling off an upset.
Just last week the last-place Johnson County Longhorns trailed by two against Volunteer going into the last quarter, only to come up short in the end.
Elizabethton's nail-biting one-point loss inside the Falcon nest indicates that not much separates the top and bottom teams.
Hampton knocked off Volunteer in Church Hill while Happy Valley owns a win over the Falcons. The Warriors fell by two at Church Hill and could be one of the hottest teams in the area at present.
Is sleeping giant Sullivan Central comes out of its shell, this could be one of the most exciting district tournaments in quiet some time.
On the girls side, everyone is chasing Unicoi with Elizabethton close on their heels. Central is capable of pulling off the upset providing everyone is healthy. Happy Valley has the talent to win on any given night.
Look for Hampton, 5-6 in conference play, to pull off a major upset when the tournaments begins.
Watauga Valley Forecast
Unlike the partly cloudy Watauga Conference race, where the forecast is a bit unclear, the District 1, Class A boys tournament looms to be a showdown against two old nemesis, Unaka and Cloudland.
If you put both teams in a checker contest, it would likely come down to the last move. Tuesday night's contest is an indication that these games are going down to the wire.
Don't count out University High in the boys division. It knocked off Cloudland in Brooks Gymnasium while losing in overtime in Roan Mountain. The Jr. Bucs were within an eyelash of defeating conference champion, Unaka.
The district championship will be important because the regional tournament has been moved from Lincoln Memorial University to Hancock County High School. The Beatles sang a song about the upcoming trip to Sneedville, "The Long and Winding Road."
Don't expect to find hotel accommodations near Hancock County.
The girls will likely be the same scenario, with Unaka and Cloudland being favored to meet in the finals. University High is much improved while North Greene has played a number of teams close in the past few weeks.
BenchTalk Notables
Did you know that Gordonsville, the top-ranked class A boys team in the AP poll, was defeated by Clay County 77-50 on its home floor earlier this year? Meanwhile, Unaka, in the Thanksgiving Classic held at Pickett County, defeated Clay County 69-48.
Did you know that Cosby, ranked No. 10 in the AP Class 1A poll, was defeated by Cloudland 63-53 back in January? Cosby also lost to Unaka, 59-58, in the same week.
Since their loss to Elizabethton back in December, the Oak Ridge Wildcats are 16-2, with two wins coming over Jefferson County, No. 9 in the AP AAA poll; and Alcoa, No. 9 in the AP AA poll. Go figure.
Out of 60 teams ranked in the Associated Press A, AA and AAA boys' and girls' polls, only five are from Northeast Tennessee.
BenchTalk Fact
How tough has Unaka's non-conference schedule been? Knox Bearden, Pickett County, Science Hill, Tennessee High, Cosby, Harriman Knoxville Catholic, Tennessee Temple and Chattanooga McCallie have a combined record of 183 wins and 57 losses. Catholic, Science Hill, Cosby and Pickett are currently ranked in their perspective classification polls.
BenchTalk Brain Storm
Hampton 60
Happy Valley 58 (Boys)
There's something about tradition when these two teams meet. Not many people give the 'Dogs a chance at knocking off the Warriors, but something tells me that the late great Bulldog legends such as Bennie Smith, Bud Winters and Barry Phillips will be watching over these young pups in their quest for victory.
Elizabethton 50
Unicoi 49 (Girls)
I could have chosen to pick a clear-cut winner, but I love a challenge. So do the Lady Cyclones. A strong wind will blow through the Devil den Monday night in Erwin.
BenchTalk's Top
Performances of the Week
* Alex Carroll scored 24 points while grabbing 13 rebounds as Happy Valley knocked off Sullivan Central 58-57 in a big conference win.
* Craig Cooke burned the Ranger defense for five three's and 18 total points to lead Cloudland to a come-from-behind win over the Unaka Rangers.
Renee Ensor knocked down 23 points as Unaka defeated Cloudland to claim it first conference championship since the 1987-88 season.
* Elena Owens had a career 30 points to lead the Johnson County Longhorns over the Sullivan North Golden Raiders.
BenchTalks Super "Star" Seven
(Class A and AA only)
1. Happy Valley 9-4 13-8
2. Volunteer 9-4 18-8
3. Sullivan Central 8-5 16-9
4. Cloudland 6-2 17-6
5. Unaka 6-0 14-10
6. Elizabethton 7-6 12-12
7. Sullivan North 6-7 12-11
1. Unicoi Co. 11-1 20-3
2. Unaka 6-1 17-6
3. Elizabethton 11-2 17-6
4. Sullivan Central 8-5 11-10
5. Hampton 5-6 10-8
6. Cloudland 4-2 13-11
7. Happy Valley 7-6 11-11