Joe Medley: A tale of year-round hoops and big hoop dreams in Woodland
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Mar 02, 2013 | 4342 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Woodland bench explodes as the final buzzer sounds making them state champions during a Class 2A state championship game of the AHSAA Final 48 Basketball Championships at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Friday morning against Prattville Christian. Woodland won the game 64-53 and the state title. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
The Woodland bench explodes as the final buzzer sounds making them state champions during a Class 2A state championship game of the AHSAA Final 48 Basketball Championships at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Friday morning against Prattville Christian. Woodland won the game 64-53 and the state title. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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BIRMINGHAM — Some championship teams catch lightning in a bottle, but Woodland caught and sustained the dream gleam in little girls’ eyes.

It first flickered around basketball eyeballs when many of the players who beat previously unbeaten Prattville Christian in Friday’s Class 2A title game were in third grade.

The gleam never stopped flickering, and the girls were juniors and seniors in high school when the dream became real.

Through months cold, hot and in between, they played basketball.

Through months when they cheered or played other sports, they played basketball.

They played in youth leagues and for travel-ball teams, some under coaches they also call daddy and uncle.

While aching for family and friends whose time in navy blue and orange passed without realizing the dream, they played on.

They played because they hoped someday to call themselves Alabama High School Athletic Association champions, something no other Woodland athlete had done.

They played until the dream gleam turned to the pink-red aftermath of joy’s tears, as seen in the eyes of the lone senior to bear the last name so associated with Woodland’s program.

“It means everything in the world,” guard Amy Strain said, after cousin Shalyn Strain fetched her from the locker room. Amy was the lone player not to attend the postgame news conference.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess all of the hard work has finally paid off, and it’s just amazing.”

Amy Strain, twins Shalyn and Shanna Strain and star point guard Leah Strain are cousins. Leah’s dad, Larry Strain, is Woodland’s head coach. Dave Strain, Amy’s dad, and Shane Strain, father to Shalyn and Shanna, have coached them all at various levels.

Leah, the 2A state tourney’s most valuable player, and Shalyn made the all-tournament team. So did junior Jaide Walker, another core player in the year-round hoops club.

Senior Lauren Ware has been part of that group. So has MaKayla Ford, who didn’t get to play in this year’s Northeast Regional and state semifinals and final because she sustained a knee injury in a sub-regional victory over Horseshoe Bend.

What have their years been like since third grade?

“Basketball,” Walker said. “We’ve been playing our whole lives — AAU ball all through the summer and then rec ball when we were little.

“We usually play all three sports (basketball, softball and volleyball), but basketball is our main one. That’s about it, year-round.”

It never stops.

“As soon as regular basketball season is over, I start travel season,” Leah Strain said. “I could play softball, but it would be kind of hard on me.

“Actually, this Saturday, I have cheer tryouts, so I have to go get ready for that. We stay really busy, and I have a basketball in my hand year-round.”

The AHSAA limits how many members of one high school team can play on the same travel-ball team, so different groups of Woodland players played on different teams during May and July.

High school teams are given days to play together as an off-season camp, of sorts, and Woodland had quite an odyssey this past June.

“We’re allowed to play seven days, and we load up, I think, on a Monday or Tuesday,” Larry Strain said. “We go drive to Mobile and play one day, the next morning, at South Alabama. We load up and travel a day to Florida State and play a couple of days at Florida State then load up and come back home.

“The next week — and we try to pick and choose our seven days as wisely as we possibly can — and we load up and go to either Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or Auburn, everywhere imaginable.”

The long road from there led Bobcats through 36 games in the high school season, and they won 34. They advanced from their corner of East Alabama to the Northeast Regional at Jacksonville State, then to Birmingham, where the dream filled in the gleam.

It took a long time. This was the 10th year since 1999 in which Woodland’s girls advanced to the regional and only the third time to get past the regional opener. It was just the second time for Woodland to reach Birmingham, and the Bobcats lost to Tanner in the 2011 2A title game.

Many older friends and family members never saw this day in uniform. Leah Strain said big sister Courtney, the state’s all-time leading scorer who never got past the regional, cried on the phone while wishing her luck.

Courtney Strain, now a redshirt sophomore at Auburn, accomplished the dream through the little sister who once brought her water then fed her so many assists.

“It means the world,” Leah Strain said. “This is something that we’ve all been dreaming of since we were little. I mean, every time we get together, we’re talking about it. I mean, all the time, this is all we talk about. This is something we’ve always wanted our whole lives.

“We finally got it, and I just praised God for it.”

Larry Strain said realizing the dream came down to the players’ long-term commitment. He put it bluntly.

“How else do you win a state championship with a 5-7 girl, and she’s your tallest (starter)?” he said.

So it was no wonder that the eldest Strain on the roster needed some time in the locker room as the rest of the team gathered in the media room Friday. Her dream came true in her final game.

The senior floor leader and talker, who makes the hustle plays, summed it up best.

“I’m just so proud of everybody on the team,” Amy Strain said. “We worked together, and we really deserve this for all of the years of work we’ve had.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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