Lady 'Landers sink Rangers for first crown

By Wes Holtsclaw

   HARROGATE -- The Cloudland Lady Highlanders came out Thursday night ready to contend for the Region 1-A Girls Championship, and just like the song from Aerosmith, they left the Tex Turner Arena with 'Sweet Emotion' after defeating the Unaka Lady Rangers for the first regional championship in school history, 52-36.
   "This is one of the better games we might have played," said Cloudland coach Matt Birchfield. "The girls really stepped up to the challenge. They really wanted a regional championship, to make a mark for themselves, and to play the substate at home. They wanted to get the home crowd involved again."
   "They just played their tails off. I thought we had a lot of depth, everybody contributed. It was a team effort. The bench was cheering us on, and Tara (Hanson) led us from that point guard position, which is what we've asked for all year long. We shot the ball really well -- Amy Storie and Nikki Webb stepped up for us tonight -- we just did everything right as a team."
   Cloudland (25-6) held Unaka (7-21) to only eight points in the first half, and expanded its offense behind Tara Hanson, who had 16 points in the first half, including three straight treys in the second quarter.
   Hanson earned the Regional MVP based on her outstanding performances this past week in Harrogate.
   "We knew it was going to be really hard to beat Unaka five straight times," said Hanson. "But we just focused all day to get ready, and we did what we had to do.
   "Everybody played like they were supposed to play, we played like a team. It was a total team effort and I am proud of my teammates."
   After being down in the first half, Unaka bounced back with more aggression in the second, and outscored Cloudland. Despite the loss, Unaka still earns a substate game.
   "Cloudland came out and outplayed us at the first," said Lady Ranger coach Kenneth Chambers. "We were a little nervous, I think, and I tried to stress the importance of not being nervous. When you have that many young kids, it happens.
   "Cloudland came out and kicked our hind-ends. They played great ball, and took us out of everything we wanted to do. That's just traditional Cloudland, and I knew that was what they were going to do.
   "We just missed too many shots, and came back out in the second half and outscored them. We just now have to get ready for our substate game. I wish the best to Cloudland, and I would like to see both of us go on."
   The first quarter was characterized by tough defense from the Lady 'Landers. Amy Storie teamed with Hanson to help stop Unaka. Julie Roberson prevented the shutout by scoring a pair of deuces, as Cloudland took the 11-4 lead.
   Heather Taylor and Roberson helped get Unaka back into things early in the second quarter, although Cloudland seemed to take things in the right direction.
   Nikki Webb and Amanda McKinney provided excellent defensive coverage, while Hanson nailed her treys, giving Cloudland the 28-8 advantage going into the locker room.
   Unaka bounced back strong from the get-go in the third period, as Danielle Ensor and Coty Townsend helped slow down the 'Lander ladies.
   Cloudland kept their cool and retained their lead as they held on 36-16 leading to the final round.
   Renee Ensor and Jessica Osbourne, with some three-pointers from Heather and Kelly Taylor, brought the Lady Rangers within 15 points. Despite the charge, Cloudland came up big behind Stachia Johnson and Holly Blair, taking the 52-36 win.
   Amy Storie contributed ten points to Cloudland, while Heather Taylor led Unaka with 11.
   Coalfield will travel to meet Cloudland on Saturday night at an undertermined location, while Unaka will travel to Oneida to face the Lady Indians. Gametime for both events will be 7:30.
   Note: The location for the Saturday Cloudland-Coalfield game will be determined tomorrow morning. Contact local officials for the final decision.