Verdigris will carry the mantel of the lone undefeated team, and perhaps the favorite, into McAlester Thursday in the opening round of the girls basketball Tournament of Champions.
The Lady Cardinals, No. 3 in the Coaches Aid magazine Class 3A rankings, will meet unranked Morris of Class 3A, in the 4 p.m. curtain-raiser at the Southeast Expo Center.
It is the Lady Cardinals’ first invitation to the Tournament of Champions, sponsored by Eastern Oklahoma State College at nearby Wilburton.
“It’s a compliment to our program,” Verdigris coach Gary Kennemer said. “It’s a privilege to be invited, and it’s a good opportunity to go and test yourself against some good competition and some big schools.”
The eight-team field is comprised of three teams from Class 6A, two from Class 5A, and three from 3A.
Verdigris is the only team with a perfect record.
With a core group that carried the Lady Cardinals to the state championship game last season back in stride, Kennemer’s team has performed as expected in its first 10 games.
A year ago, the Lady Cardinals were 6-3 after their first nine games and were heading to the Bethel tournament. They had finished third in the December Vinita tournament and would also place third at Bethel.
This season, the Lady Cardinals captured the Inola tournament in December, and have won every game by an average of 14 points.
After the Bethel tournament last January, losing to Prague in the semifinals, the Lady Cardinals ran off 14 straight victories before bowing to Adair in the area tournament at Bixby. They regrouped and reached the state finals, only to fall short of Tahlequah Sequoyah, 60-45.
Four regulars from that stirring run have fueled this season’s start.
Cassie Clarke, Meg Heskett, Kait Heskett and Tiffani Nelms, according to Kennemer, “have grown up a little bit, matured a little bit.”
On Saturday night, at home, Verdigris started slowly and trailed Oologah in the first half.
After intermission, the Lady Cardinals came out and blitzed Oologah while rolling up a 21-point win.
“To be honest, we haven’t hit on all cylinders yet,” Kennemer said.
“But they know when to turn it up.”
It was a similar scenario on Tuesday night. In a 62-44 win over Sequoyah, the Lady Cardinals shook off a third-period letdown to outscore the Lady Eagles, 17-4, in the fourth.
Clarke is the pointmaker, while the trio of Heskett, Heskett and Nelms provide the energy.
But Kennemer warns that his three small guards should not be dismissed as mere energizers.
“They can light it up, too,” he said.
Clarke leads the scoring charts at 19.1. Nelms is second at 10.2, followed by Kait Heskett at 8.4 and Meg Heskett at 5.6.
Additionally, Clarke is averaging 8.4 rebounds per game, and Nelms has almost three steals per outing.
4 p.m. — Verdigris (9-0, No. 3 3A) vs. Morris (4-4, unranked 3A)
5:30 p.m. — Coweta (4-1, No. 3 5A) vs. Del City (6-2, No. 8 6A)
7 p.m. — McAlester (3-3, No. 8 6A) vs. Stillwater (0-6, unranked 6A)
8:30 p.m. — Edmond Memorial (4-4, No. 12 6A) vs. Chouteau (8-2, No. 9 3A)
4 p.m. — Edmond Memorial-Chouteau loser vs. Verdigris-Morris loser
5:30 p.m. — Coweta-Del City loser vs. Stillwater-McAlester loser
7 p.m. — Coweta-Del City winner vs. Stillwater-McAlester winner
8:30 p.m. — Edmond Memorial-Chouteau winner vs. Verdigris-Morris winner.
3 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m.