Reality once again bites Woodland in NE Regional
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Feb 21, 2012 | 2005 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
JACKSONVILLE — That old familiar feeling returned for top-ranked Woodland on Monday.

The school’s girls’ program has felt it many times, with just one difference this time. The Bobcats got past the Northeast Regional a year ago, made it to Birmingham and know the fine feeling of playing in the Final 48.

Which had to make Woodland’s 51-49 loss to No. 2 Section in Monday’s regional semifinals hurt a little more. Once again, the Northeast Regional jumped up and reminded Woodland of why it struggles so in Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.

“Winning a state championship is always our goal,” Woodland coach Larry Strain said. “We just have to go back to work again.

“Sure, it’s disappointing right now, but, you know, I’ve been disappointed before.”

Dating back to 1999, Woodland has made the Northeast Regional nine times.

Only in 2002 and 2011 did the Bobcats make it past the semifinals, and only last year did Woodland win the regional.

In 1999, the Bobcats opened with an 81-54 loss to Fyffe.

In 2000, it was a 74-46 loss to Geraldine.

Other semifinal losses included 76-48 to Sand Rock in 2006, 68-57 to Ider in 2008, 72-69 to Section in 2009, 77-72 to Section in 2010 and Monday’s loss to, yes, Section.

As a Class 1A team, Woodland beat Skyline in 2002 but lost to what was then a Spring Garden dynasty in the regional finals.

All of Woodland’s other regional appearances came as a 2A team, and the Bobcats broke through a year ago. They survived North Sand Mountain, 66-62 in double overtime, then Ranburne, 63-56.

Woodland went on to finish as the 2A state runner-up and with one major bullet point. The Bobcats did it without Courtney Strain, the state’s all-time leading scorer who had moved on to begin her college career at Auburn.

A year ago, Woodland showed it could be done and came one victory away from a state title.

Monday, Woodland led Section 30-25 at halftime, but then some of Woodland’s realities bit.

There’s the perennial lack of size, and Section used its size to block nine shots — six in the second half.

There’s tough, hard-driving point guard Leah Strain, Courtney’s little sister, who scored 29 points Monday, and not much else. At least, not in big games.

Cousin Shanna Strain tossed in 12 points, including two 3-pointers that helped Woodland rally late, but she and Leah Strain combined for 41 of Woodland’s 49 points. The other three Woodland starters were a combined 1-for-10 with two points.

It raises the question of whether some of Leah Strain’s teammates defer too much in big games.

“Leah took shots tonight that she normally doesn’t have to take,” said Larry Strain, Leah’s and Courtney’s dad. “… We really hadn’t had that problem all year long.

“How do you handle it? How do you fix it? All I know is that our girls have to keep shooting.”

Section coach Mary Danielle Maples knew all too well how much Woodland relies on Leah Strain to drive and either score or pass out for 3-point shots. The Lions came with a plan to make Leah Strain work as hard as possible to drive then take advantage on the other end.

“She works so hard on offense,” Maples said, “that we thought she might have to rest a little on defense.”

Section has shown time and again it has the team to do whatever it needs against Woodland, which raised the biggest perennial question that Woodland faces. It’s the question that so often surfaces in the regional.

Do the Bobcats see enough top competition during the regular season?

They can’t help their area, which includes No. 10 Ranburne but also Lineville and Randolph County. The latter two schools averaged 19.2 points in five combined games against Woodland this season.

The Bobcats won a game against Randolph County 79-9 and another against Lineville 62-15, but don’t blame the schedule maker. Enrollment, geography and the AHSAA determine area alignments.

Larry Strain has tried to bulk up Woodland’s non-area schedule in recent years. The Bobcats played No. 6 Mars Hill Bible, No. 7 Altamont and Lanett (receiving votes) this season. They also played in the Northwest Alabama Christmas Tournament.

“We realize we have to do that to help us when we get to this level, but let’s face it and say this, too,” Larry Strain said. “We had the toughest draw and bracket of any 2A girls’ bracket.

“I think the team that comes out of this regional has got a chance to win it all.”

Woodland had that chance a year ago, losing to a bigger, stronger Tanner team in the state final.

As for this season, it ends like so many others for Woodland — a great record (32-2), a nice ranking in the final poll (dated Feb. 9) and a loss in the Northeast Regional.

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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