It was not exactly the best way to begin a new year ... being shackled with a three-game losing streak. Three defeats in about 40 hours.
Kelly Clarke and the Verdigris Cardinals closed out December, and 2006, by finishing dead last in the Schoolboy Basketball Tournament of Champions in Tulsa.
The Cardinals entered the venerable tournament with an unbeaten record and the No. 1 ranking in Class 3A.
They limped home Saturday night after losses to two No. 1 teams and an undefeated large school power.
If a team, and a community, were looking for a positive after such a negative, it would be twofold.
1, Nine teams have lost all three games in the Tournament of Champions and bounced back to win state championships in March.
2, Rotnei Clarke led the Tournament of Champions in scoring and earned a spot on the all-tournament team.
Verdigris was derailed by Midwest City, No. 4 in Class 6A, 63-60, in Thursday’s opening round. Clarke, the 6-foot junior scoring machine, had 31 points.
In the consolation bracket semifinals, Class 4A No. 1 Victory Christian erased a 20-point deficit in the final six minutes and went on to a 76-64 win in overtime. Clarke scored 38.
In Saturday’s seventh-place game, Class B No. 1 Stringtown pulled off an 82-71 surprise at high noon. Clarke had 35.
For the tournament, Clarke amassed 104 points, 30 more than runnerup Keiton Page of Pawnee.
“In order to prepare for the state tournament, you want to play in these kinds of games, but you also want to be able to take something from it,” Verdigris coach Kelly Clarke said on the first day of the new year.
“When you don’t win a game, it’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Other coaches before him said basically the same thing upon leaving the Tournament of Champions without a victory.
The last team to emerge from a winless holiday to begin a march to championship gold was Calumet. The Chieftains finished last in December 2003 and then captured the Class B state title in March 2004.
That’s the light Kelly Clarke hopes will show his team the way, once the Cardinals’ regular-season schedule resumes this weekend.
“I don’t think that you can say we’re off track,” Clarke said. “I just think we haven’t progressed as fast as what I wanted us to.
“These kids are just not playing together. They don’t really know what to trust right now. And that’s including me.
“They’re still really talented. The pieces are all there. It’s just a matter of me putting them together.
“I knew we weren’t ready to play offensively. I’ve had teams come in here where I knew we weren’t ready to play defensively.
“But defensively, I think we did adequate enough to win. But offensively, we’re just not in the right place yet.”
The Cardinals, who won the Oklahoma Baptist University tournament in Shawnee last month during a 7-0 start, will return to the court Friday and Saturday this week with home games.
“In the long un, we’ll be better,” Clarke said. “But we’re just not going to be a team that has many options in a come-from-behind situation. We’ve got to play consistent throughout.
“Defensively, we’ve got some places we need to improve. Offensively is where we have got to come together. And we will.”
Rotnei Clarke entered the tournament with a 34-point scoring average. That’s exactly what he averaged in the tournament.
“He doesn’t have to do it all this year,” Kelly Clarke said.
“But subconsciously, it’s tough handing over those reins a little bit; kind of pulling it back.”
A year ago, Rotnei Clarke averaged 34 for the season, led the state in scoring, and the Cardinals reached the Class 3A semifinals.
The Tournament of Champions spotlighted some of the Cardinals’ shortcomings.
Kelly Clarke will be addressing those issues in the days and weeks to come.
“When you’re playing that good a caliber of team like you face in the Tournament of Champions, every little minute detail just gets exposed,” he said.
“In the long run,” he reiterated, “we’ll be better.”
STRINGTOWN 82, VERDIGRIS 71
Stringtown 20 11 20 31 — 82
Verdigris 12 10 15 34 — 71
Stringtown — O.Brown 28, Watson 25, Washington 13, E.Brown 6, Heard 5, McGee 5.
Verdigris — Clarke 35, Hollon 26, Sam 6, Schultz 2, Sam 2.
VICTORY CHRISTIAN 76, VERDIGRIS 64
Victory Christian 9 15 6 30 16 — 76
Verdigris 15 14 16 15 4 — 64
Victory Christian — Crawford 34, Stewart 15, Petit 10, Agbasi 8, Houston 7, Wilson 2.
Verdigris — Clarke 38, Schultz 8, Brown 6, Hollon 5, Sam 4, Smith 2, Overholt 1.
Saturday — Stringtown held Rotnei Clarke to four points in the first 21 minutes. He scored 31 in the final 11 minutes ... Orlando Brown scored 28 and James Watson had 25 for Stringtown ... Stringtown is No. 1 in Class B and left the tournament with an 11-4 record.
Friday — Verdigris led, 52-31, with six minutes remaining ... Robert Crawford scored 34 points, pulled 12 rebounds, for Victory ... Rotnei Clarke had 38 points, 10 rebounds for Verdigris ... Victory is No. 1 in Class 4A.
Eighth-place teams that won state championships
1970 — Class B Edmond Deer Creek
1975 — Class 2A Anadarko
1981 — Class B Asher
1989 — Class B Boynton
1993 — Class A Coyle
1994 — Class A Ketchum
1997 — Class 2A Hollis
1998 — Class B Frontier
2003 — Class A Calumet
Nick Sidorakis, Jenks, 6-5, senior, 49 points, 12 rebounds
Rotnei Clarke, Verdigris, 6-0, junior, 104 points, 20 rebounds
Keiton Page, Pawnee, 5-10, junior, 74 points
Xavier Alexander, Midwest City, 6-7, senior, 67 points, 21 rebounds
Robert Crawford, Victory Christian, 6-5, junior, 72 points, 33 rebounds
Bryson Pope, Jenks, 6-6, sophomore, 54 points, 31 rebounds