By BEN JOHNSON
Chad Walker's first year on the job was a rough one. Victories were hard to come by for the Tahlequah girls basketball coach during the 2009-2010 season.
Even he'll admit it.
"We were ranked 31st in the state," Walker said, whose team narrowly avoided being the lowest-ranked team out of 32 clubs in Class 5A. "We had six wins, and one or two of those were against JV teams. And we couldn't even get enough girls to practice; I think we had nine girls."
That campaign — which featured two regular-season wins over Catoosa and two victories in the consolation bracket of the Shrine Classic — ended on a five-game losing streak, including a a 49-32 thumping at the hands of Tulsa Memorial in the regional opener.
Tahlequah wasn't at rock bottom. But it wasn't far off, either.
But there was hope on the horizon.
That next season, the 2010-2011 school year, Walker welcomed new members to the team, such as sophomores, Casey Beaston, Alissa Hadley and Maegan Blevins, and freshman, Randee O'Donnell and Marisa Girdner.
There were bumps along the road, but Tahlequah hovered around the .500 mark and even cracked 5A's top 20 along the way.
"I felt like the girls got screwed in the rankings — but I'll always feel that way," said Walker, whose team dropped in the final rankings that came out, leading to a first-round playoff matchup against Bishop Kelley, which Tahlequah lost 67-34.
"...We went from being ninth to being 13th, and I was ticked off about it. I didn't appreciate it, and I felt the girls got cheated."
Perhaps, though, it was a blessing in disguise. Tahlequah learned how it would have to navigate through a rigid Metro Lakes Conference slate and a schedule laced with quality tournament games.
That came in handy last season when Tahlequah was nearly flawless in league play and won the Metro Lakes Conference crown. The Lady Tigers made beating Bishop Kelley and Claremore the norm during the regular season before being selected as one of four teams to host a regional tournament on the east side of the state.
That's when Tahlequah had its feet put to the fire. In a regional championship game against Bishop Kelley, the Lady Tigers faltered down the stretch and squandered a chance to win its first regional title in more than a decade.
The Lady Tigers followed that up with an area-tournament loss to Grove, bringing their season to a halt only two steps from the state tournament.
"That loss stuck with us all offseason," Walker said of the loss to Grove, which capped Tahlequah's season at 17-8. "We just couldn't finish it off."
All three of those seasons led to what has become the pinnacle for the Lady Tigers: a spot in the state tournament this year.
"During my freshman year, mentally, I didn't think some of the players here wanted it, so I didn't think we'd ever make it to the state tournament," Blevins said. "But by my sophomore year, Coach Walker had instilled a will to win. And it wasn't until last year, that we made goals to get to state."
Tahlequah earned a No. 5 ranking at one point this season, and now its claim to fame is being an area champion and playing in the state tournament for the first time since 2001.
"I thought we might of been ranked a little too high at the beginning of the season, but I thought when the season was over, I thought we should have been somewhere in the top seven," said Walker, whose club is ranked seventh and is set to take on No. 3 Carl Albert in the first round of the state tournament tonight at 8:30 at Catoosa High School.
"...To be honest, I think seven is where we should have been, even with Jhonett (Cookson) quitting and losing Desiree (Phipps) to injury. I think our girls have been playing really well to be in the top seven."
The Lady Tigers certainly have pieced together their best stretch of basketball in the last two weeks. Playoff wins over Coweta, Chickasha and Memorial have kept Tahlequah's season alive, and it's still going even without Randee O'Donnell — Tahlequah's leading scorer who suffered a lower left leg injury against Coweta in the Lady Tigers' playoff opener.
O'Donnell missed the Chickasha and Memorial games. But the junior guard has made a concerted effort to return in time for the state tournament.
"I've been pretty much living in ice the past two weeks," O'Donnell said. "(Tuesday) is the first time to try it out in practice, and we're just going to see what happens."
As for her availability for Tahlequah this week, O'Donnell said, "It hurts, but it's tolerable. I'd say Thursday is very doable."
Against Carl Albert, Tahlequah will focus all of its attention on Gioya Carter, an Oklahoma signee who leads the Titans in scoring.
"I don't want to just contain her," Walker said of Carter, a 5-foot-9 guard. "I want to stop her. But I also want to stop everyone else."
Walker compared the Carl Albert matchup to playing Muskogee in the UKB Tiger Invitational finals in early December. Back then, Tahlequah focused all of its attention on shutting down Kelsey McClure and Alexus Wilson.
"(Muskogee) had two good players — no, great players. And we had them beat," Walker said of his team's 61-54 loss to the Roughers.
The Tahlequah-Carl Albert showdown will feature a club that hasn't made a state-tournament appearance in more than a decade (Tahlequah). The team on the other side of the floor (Carl Albert) will be making its ninth straight appearance on the state's biggest stage. But Walker's message to his club is don't be intimidated and don't be content with just making it to the state tournament.
"I don't want us to fold the tent," Walker said. "I've been telling the girls, 'do not be satisfied.' Because they've done something that Tahlequah hasn't done in over 10 years. We can't be satisfied with that."