No, it wasn’t Mountain Brook, which has a history of turning one end of The Pete tennis-ball green during the Northeast Regional. It was a team from Calhoun County.
Saks students and faculty turned the west end of Jacksonville State University’s basketball venue white as the Wildcats’ boys and girls teams played in Class 3A semifinals Thursday.
Take that, Mountain Brook. Love, Calhoun County.
“We’ve got a lot of people represented here,” Calhoun County commissioner J.D. Hess said. “I know Saks came in with over 500 children in the community and the principal, the administration helped get here.
“We’re proud, you know. Heck, we’ve got Jacksonville. We’ve got Weaver and White Plains. We’ve just got a lot of people. That speaks highly for sports in Calhoun County.”
Thursday was a rare and welcomed day at the Northeast Regional, marked by teams from Calhoun County playing in seven of the eight semifinal games on tap in the 3A and 4A classifications.
The news wasn’t all triumphant. White Plains’ girls, Saks’ girls, Weaver’s boys and Anniston’s boys lost to end their seasons short of the regional finals.
Then again, Jacksonville’s and Anniston’s girls won and will collide for an All-Calhoun County 4A final Saturday at 3:40 p.m.
Saks’ boys put on a dunk show en route to routing Geraldine and will play Saturday at 2 p.m. against Holly Pond, which beat Weaver in a thrilling game Thursday.
There’s one more Calhoun County-based team in this tournament. Sacred Heart’s boys didn’t play Thursday but beat Spring Garden on Tuesday and will play Ragland in Friday’s 5:20 p.m. final in 1A.
Eight teams from Calhoun County advanced to the Northeast Regional this year, the most since 11 made it in 2008. It’s short of the 2007 total of 12 Calhoun County-based teams, a record for the tournament’s 21-year history, but double the four that made it in each of the past two years.
Five teams from the county made it in 2009 and 2010 and six in 2011.
This year’s Calhoun County resurgence is welcomed news to those who care about the tournament, which has been played at JSU throughout its history.
“This tournament means a lot to Calhoun County, the economy and all,” Hess said. “I’m proud to have everyone come here. I hope we keep having our tournament here for years to come. It’s good for the county, it’s good for the spirit, and it’s good for the kids.”
JSU and the Alabama High School Athletic Association agreed on an extension a year ago, meaning JSU will play host at least two more years after this year’s tournament.
Calhoun County is right where the home teams want the tournament.
“This is our town, and we get to play a lot of games up there, especially over the past three or four seasons,” Jacksonville coach Ryan Chambless said. “I think we feel kind of at home up here playing. I think that is an advantage to us a little bit.”
It can be an advantage to JSU, as well, though having lots of home-based teams doesn’t guarantee huge attendance. The fact that four county-based teams in this year’s field came from two schools meant the same people attended multiple games Thursday.
Too, Anniston’s and Jacksonville’s teams played after school hours, so students at both schools didn’t have the same incentive to attend.
Thursday saw 3,981 tickets sold, tourney coordinator Mark Jones said. That’s up from Tuesday’s opening-day total of 3,781 but down from Wednesday’s mark of 4,560.
This year’s tournament stands at 12,322 after three of five sessions. It’s on pace to beat last year’s total of 18,181, the second-lowest total in Northeast Regional history, but finish under the 2008 record of 27,390.
Still, Thursday’s session kept tournament workers from DAYSTAR, Inc., hopping.
The 10-year-old, Calhoun County-based staffing company that handles parking, ticket sales and crowd control for area sporting events, including the Northeast Regional, coordinates with school principals. They coordinate on timing of arrival, presale of tickets, coliseum entrance and seating.
Saks came with buses full Thursday.
“I talked to the principal (Jody Whaley), and he had 16 kids back at the school,” said Wellborn’s Tim Thomas, DAYSTAR’s founder. He had just jogged back into the coliseum after directing traffic following the Weaver-Holly Pond game.
“He counted, I believe, high school, it was 490 kids, and the middle school brought half of their kids,” Thomas said. “We coordinated with them, and it was picture-perfect.”
Indeed, Calhoun County-based schools rivaling Mountain Brook’s cheering section makes for a nice picture. It’s almost as nice as seeing eight county-based teams in the brackets, including seven in one day.
“It’s real strange,” Jones said. “In years past, county teams have not brought that many, but this year, Saks did a great job, and they all had on the white shirts and did a great job.
“But, just the fact of it being Calhoun County, there’s a lot of pride in that.”
Contact Anniston Star Sports Columnist Joe Medley at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, @jmedley_star. Star preps writer Brandon Miller contributed to this report.