Cloudland girls face tough opening game

Douglas Fritz • Mar 7, 2012 at 9:46 PM

MURFREESBORO — There’s a lot of tradition in District 7-A girls basketball, the home for Clay County.

Jackson County won four straight Class AA state titles (2000-03) before dropping to 7-A and winning again in 2008 and 2010. Clarkrange has won eight Class A state titles, most recently in 2004 and 2009.

So when Cloudland (32-4) faces Clay County (24-9) in today’s Class A state quarterfinals, the Lady Highlanders won’t be meeting some unsteady fawn. Tipoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. (EST) at Murphy Center.

The Lady Bulldogs are quick and talented, said Cloudland head coach Matt Birchfield.

“They have a lot of seniors and veteran kids,” said Birchfield, who has Cloudland back in the state event for the first time since 2007. “They play in a really tough conference, so they are battle-tested. They have a really solid team, and most of their losses came against Clarkrange and Jackson County.”

Of the Bulldogs’ nine losses, six were to Jackson County (4) and Clarkrange (2) and two came against Macon County, which reached the Class AA sectional round. One loss was against a team from Kentucky.

Clay is led by senior guard Sydney Roach and post Casey Cooper, who lit up Gordonsville for 29 points in the Region 7-A semifinals. Roach had 19 in that game.

Roach (15) and Cooper (12) combined for 27 points in the championship-game loss to Jackson County.

And in the 60-39 sectional win over Whitwell, Roach turned it up a notch and totaled 26 points and seven steals.

“I’ve got one of the best guards in the state,” Clay County coach Joe Sims told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press after the Whitwell game. “She can do it all, and she showed that tonight.”

Birchfield agreed.

“(Roach) is a real good guard,” he said. “She’s small, but fast, and scores a lot.

“Cooper is really good, too. She’s undersized (5-8), but plays hard.”

Other key players include McKenzie Hamilton and post Allie Brown. Brown had 13 points against Whitwell.

Birchfield said he expects some variety of defense from Clay County.

“They do press and they play man to man,” said Birchfield. “They also run a matchup zone. They’ve got a lot of speed, and they want to cause turnovers. I’m sure they will get after us.”

Birchfield said handling the pressure, along with the typical state tournament nerves, will be key for Cloudland.

He said he believes Cloudland has a chance to make some hay in the paint with Johnson City Press All-Northeast Tennessee player of the year Brooke Rhodes teaming up with postmate Courtney Wilson.

“We’ve got an advantage inside,” said Birchfield. “We’re bigger.”

Another key player for Cloudland is point guard Courtney Clarke, who is a big threat from 3-point land.

Cloudland left for Murfreesboro on Wednesday, and Birchfield planned to get some shooting in at Tennessee Tech to prepare for playing in spacious Murphy Center.

“We were there this summer,” said Birchfield. “We’ve tried to play in some open gyms, trying to get the kids ready.”

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