Ranked No. 1 in Class 2A all year, the Lady Bobcats defeated second-ranked Prattville Christian in the girls state championship game 64-53 to win the school’s first state title recognized by the Alabama High School Athletics Association.
“This is something we’ve been dreaming about since we were little,” said 2A state tournament most valuable player Leah Strain, who had 29 points and 10 rebounds. “It means so much to us and the community to finally win a state championship.”
Woodland has come close to landing a state title before, coming up short in three separate championship games. The football team fell to Leroy in title contests in 2004 and 2006, while the girls basketball team reached the finals in 2011 before losing.
The 1963 football team went 10-0 and was named state champion by a newspaper, but the AHSAA recognizes Talladega as the mythical champion of that season.
Prattville Christian entered Friday’s game with a taller team and an unbeaten record in 34 games. Woodland coach Larry Strain planed to press and play quicker than the Panthers.
However, Strain said he only saw spurts of what he was looking for in the first half, as the two teams went into halftime tied 25-25.
“Some parts of the game would swing in their favor, and sometimes our pressure on defense would cause a turnover and we’d have different runs,” Larry Strain said. “There were spurts and times in the first half that we played the tempo we wanted to. But there were spurts and times that we played their tempo, too, and they were successful at it.”
After adjusting its press was adjusted at the break, Woodland (34-2) took control after trailing by three points early in the third quarter. The Lady Bobcats surged ahead 31-30 with 3:47 left in the period behind the strong shooting of Jaide Walker.
With Woodland struggling with Prattville Christian’s 1-3-1 defense, Walker provided a lift from the wing. The junior scored six of her 16 points in the third.
“I think the tempo switched in the second half more for us,” Larry Strain said. “We got the lead and were able to hold the basketball and do some different things.”
Woodland built its lead to as much as 12 points in the third quarter and entered the fourth ahead 42-32. With fewer than five minutes to play, the Lady Bobcats turned to a spread offense, giving the ball to Leah Strain and letting her burn the clock.
“Once they got a double-digit lead, and the way Leah Strain can handle the basketball is pretty amazing,” Prattville Christian coach Jason Roberson said. “I figured we would have to go to a trapping defense, try to get the ball out of her hand and try to speed the game up a little.”
And just like third-ranked North Sand Mountain discovered in a similar situation in the Northeast Regional semifinals, it isn’t easy trying to trap Strain.
As the foul started coming with the game winding down, Leah Strain made six trips and Shayln Strain making four trips to the free-throw line, as Woodland’s late lead hovered around 10 points. Both made their shots, and Woodland closed the door on any hope of the Panthers winning a state championship in their first year in the AHSAA.
“I knew we still had to play because they could come back, but I think I knew then that we had it won,” Leah Strain said. “I was excited.”
Prattville Christian’s Kristen Emerson gave the Lady Bobcats trouble all day. The 6-foot-1 do-it-all player did not go down quietly, finishing with 37 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out.
“I think what everybody got to see today is what I’ve gotten to see all year,” Roberson said. “It’s amazing. That’s a pretty good game to play against the best team in the state. I’m really not surprised to see her do it.”
Leah Strain, Walker and Shayln Strain, who had 10 points, made the all-tournament team. In their last game for Woodland, Amy Strain finished with six rebounds and Lauren Ware scored four points and pulled down six boards.
With Amy Strain the only starter graduating, the Strain Gang, plus Jaide Walker, will return next year in an attempt to repeat its state title run.
“This is the beginning, but not the beginning of another state championship,” Larry Strain said. “It’s the beginning of getting back and going to work. We know what it’s like now. We want to come back and try to get another one.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.