By BEN JOHNSON
Christmas is around the corner. Houses are all lit up. Trees have been trimmed. Holiday jingles are filling our offices, cars and dwellings.
Santa Claus will be sliding down chimneys a week from today, and cookies and milk will be left for Jolly Old Saint Nick.
All of that means the first month of the high school basketball season is winding down. There will still be two months (and some change) left in the season after the big crystal ball drops in New York and we celebrate the arrival of 2013.
Yet, with still plenty of basketball left to be played, we’re already starting to see how the standings will shake out in the Metro Lakes Conference.
You can already tell who will be the cream of the crop on the girls side. The dominant boys teams are certainly surfacing.
Ladies first, obviously.
• League favorites: Tahlequah, Collinsville, Bishop Kelley.
The league should be Tahlequah’s to lose. A second straight MLC crown should be in order, provided the Lady Tigers take care of their own business.
There’s little denying that Tahlequah has the most talented roster. Casey Beaston (5-foot-11) and Jhonett Cookson (6-1) are nightmares for other teams in the middle. Randee O’Donnell and Marisa Girdner offer a backcourt that can do it all, with O’Donnell’s shooting and all-around game and Girdner’s ball handling and assist prowess. Toss in the spot-up shooting ability of Alissa Hadley and Maegan Blevins, Whitney Wright’s aggressiveness and Lindsay Wade’s upside as a freshman, and this is a club that has the highest of ceilings.
That doesn’t even include Desiree Phipps, a 5-9 sophomore who is possibly the club’s best ball handler. It’s safe to say not many teams across the Oklahoma landscape can sport a near-six footer who can occupy the point-guard position.
Of course, Tahlequah does need Phipps to stay healthy. After missing the first four games of the year, she went down with a leg injury in Tahlequah’s win over Coweta on Saturday.
However, Tahlequah coach Chad Walker said initial reports on Phipps’ left knee — which she was holding while grimacing in pain — were positive and that she’d be all healed up and ready to go with a little bit of rest.
That’s not good news for Collinsville or Bishop Kelley.
Bishop Kelley, though, was able to beat Tahlequah when Phipps was healthy last week. But Tahlequah did miss a plethora of shots, helping Bishop Kelley claim the first matchup between the two teams.
Bishop Kelley’s problem will be consistently putting up big offensive numbers. Haley Stephens, Madi Schulz and Seana Stoia are all decent offensive weapons, but none possess the ability to take the game over on their own. For the Lady Comets to be successful, that trio will have to average about 35 to 40 points a game and hope for some peripheral help.
Collinsville, under the direction of Kelly Clarke, who coached Rotnei Clarke at Verdigris, has turned the corner with point guard Shelbie Kirby leading the charge. A case could be made that Kirby is the best scorer in the league, and of course that’s easy to defend when she’s putting up 16.1 points per contest (it was 17 before Tahlequah limited her to eight points on Friday night).
The biggest obstacle facing Collinsville is a secondary scoring option beyond Kirby. Kyrston Wheeler can, at times, manhandle others in the paint, but Tahlequah was able to limit her production while deploying Cookson and Beaston on her.
Haylie Kirby, Samantha Smith and Shannon Driggers are Collinsville’s best bets to lend a hand in the scoring department. None have done so to this point, and Wheeler has only scored in double figures twice.
So, Collinsville can basically be referred to as the Shelbie Kirby Show. She’s good, but not likely league title good.
• Darkhorse: Claremore.
Claremore proved me wrong last season. The Lady Zebras had few things going for them other than Miranda Taylor and coach Mark Campbell. Both of those were good enough to bump Claremore all the way into the Class 5A state tournament.
Campbell certainly deserves a tip of the cap for that one.
This year, both Campbell and Taylor are gone, making it an already unbearable uphill climb at Claremore.
Yet, there is enough in place with Kaleigh Cox, Anna McGuire and Monica Taylor and new coach Stephanie Shaw that Claremore could have a puncher’s chance at the league crown, if all the chips fall into the right place.
A one-point win over Bishop Kelley on Friday was a start in the right direction.
• Long shots: Pryor, Skiatook and Coweta.
Pryor could evolve into a darkhorse, but a 1-4 record before a win over hapless Skiatook last Friday is not a good sign. And a 5A team finishing seventh in the Inola tournament — a field littered with schools all smaller than Pryor — is exactly a shot in the arm.
Coweta has typically been strong in the past, but Jenni Bryan isn’t walking through that door this season. This is a club that struggled to move the ball up the floor while being full-court pressed by Tahlequah on Saturday night.
And at Skiatook, if coach Tatum Beer — a former standout at Sapulpa and at the University of Tulsa — isn’t suiting up then the Lady Bulldogs have virtually no offensive threats. Correy Moyer moving to Verdigris in the offseason didn’t help, either.
Gentlemen, you’re up.
• Favorites: Bishop Kelley, Coweta.
There’s no denying it: it’s a two-horse race to the league title on the boys side. And it’s no coincidence they’re the only ranked teams in the conference.
The quartet of Ty Gunter, Zach Norris, Caleb Norris and Austin Swboni make Coweta a legitimate threat to challenge the Tulsa schools for spots in the 5A state tournament.
Matt Craig, J.D. Limes, Josh Limes and Daniel Smith give Bishop Kelley a foursome of its own that makes it quite formidable.
However, at this point in the season, I’d lead toward Coweta snagging the league bragging rights.
• Darkhorses: Tahlequah, Pryor, Skiatook.
Lain Wright makes Tahlequah viable, and A.J. Surritte is the face of the franchise in Skiatook. But both teams are questionable beyond them.
For Tahlequah, Jake Vader has been a pleasant surprise, but the key to success will be David Dick, Will Carlile, Dalton Cunningham and Kourtland McMillan finding their ways offensively.
Zac Baumert leads a group of four capable scorers for Pryor, which has shown flashes of brillance. Playing tight with Fort Gibson and Verdigris were promising signs in the Inola tournament, but then a loss to Inola deflated that balloon.
Pryor has since beaten Collinsville and Skiatook, but....
• Long shots: Collinsville and Claremore.
...Pryor beating Collinsville doesn’t allow for any bragging rights.
Collinsville gave all-out hustle against Tahlequah last week and never quit, but the Cardinals lack any talent to put up a fight in the league. I’ll commend Collinsville for hanging tough and forcing Tahlequah into a close game, but it could be a long year for the Cardinals.
Same goes for Claremore, which not that long ago was a major player in 5A. However, Dakota Caudill now plays at Northeastern State and Alex Miller is no longer in red and white, leaving the Zebras looking for answers on both ends of the floor.