In the time since Chattanooga Christian's girls played in the Times Free Press Best of Preps basketball tournament shortly after Christmas at Chattanooga State, they haven't looked like the same team. And that's a positive thing.
The resurgent Lady Chargers help get postseason play under way in the Chattanooga area by hosting Sequatchie County tonight at 7 in a District 7-AA tournament game. Grundy County's girls also host Signal Mountain tonight at 7 EST.
Boys' action begins Tuesday with Chattanooga Christian playing at Sequatchie County and Grundy County playing at Notre Dame. Those games are also scheduled for 7 p.m. EST.
Action in other local TSSAA district tournaments won't begin until Wednesday or later.
The Lady Chargers finished out the December tournament with consecutive losses to Division II-AA heavyweights Baylor and GPS. However, CCS coach Laura Cottrell looks back on the tournament favorably.
The losses were without junior starting forward and leading rebounder Clara Dirkse, who had to have surgery over the Christmas break. Most notable, the Lady Chargers came from 20 points down in their tournament opener and beat Arts & Sciences 58-50 in overtime.
"Although we didn't perform well against Baylor and GPS," Cottrell said, "I think that gave them the confidence to know they're never out of a game."
In the last two months CCS has overcome a 17-point deficit against Sequatchie County and a 10-point deficit late in the second half against Notre Dame. The Dec. 29 loss to GPS was the Lady Chargers' eighth of the season, but now they're at 17-11. Of the three losses in the last five weeks, two have been to district regular-season champion Bledsoe County, and the second of those was by one point.
"The Bledsoe game was a heartbreaker," Cottrell said. "That's the first time they've been really disappointed. They were passionate about that loss. It meant something to them. We go back and play a better first half and we're never in that position."
Tonight's winner at CCS plays Thursday at Bledsoe.
"We know we can beat anyone if we play as well as we can," said point guard Mary Sabourin, CCS's only senior. "We're not scared, where last year we could've been, or the first half of this year. We've come back from some major deficits. We feel good about ourselves."
Cottrell has high praise for Sabourin as a leader, a floor general and calls her the team's "engine." She also leads the team at 3.6 steals per game. Sophomore guard/forward Joanna Smith leads a balanced-scoring attack at 13.6 points per game.
The emergence of junior guard Allison Hughes, who wasn't a starter at the beginning of the season, has contributed greatly in the turnaround. Post player Amanda Loyal, who generally takes on someone bigger, especially in district games, rounds out the starting lineup.
Junior guard Rachel Delashmitt adds depth, although sophomore forward Hannah Henry averages playing the most minutes off the bench and is the second-leading scorer at 10.1 per game. Others picked up her playing time in the middle of the season when she was out three weeks with a concussion.
"I'm not going to say it was good to get hurt," Henry said. "but I think because some other girls got to play more, when I got back we kind of all started clicking together as a team. I know now you've got to take care of yourself when you play. I wasn't thinking for one moment and it hurt me."
Henry said she believes strong mental preparation will be necessary if the Lady Chargers are going to make a run at the tournament championship. Not often does a team seeded fourth pull it off, but the way they've played down the stretch of the season, this is no ordinary fourth-seeded team.
"We're going for the district championship," Sabourin said. "We definitely have the ability to do it. This district is so close. There's not a team superior to us. Numbers don't mean anything anymore."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.