UPDATED NE Regional: Nervous, emotional Woodland cruises past Sand Rock to 2A final
by Joe Medley
Feb 19, 2014 | 3187 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Woodland's Jaide Walker, left, and Leah Strain, right, defend Sand Rock's Leslie Mackey. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Woodland's Jaide Walker, left, and Leah Strain, right, defend Sand Rock's Leslie Mackey. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE -- Hard to tell from the look of things, but defending state champion Woodland was a nervous and emotional team headed into its Class 2A Northeast Regional semifinal rout of Sand Rock on Wednesday.

“I don’t know how many times this is that we’ve been to the regionals, but it’s been a lot,” Woodland coach Larry Strain said. “We were probably more nervous this time than we’ve been at any other time.

“We weren’t lacking in confidence or overconfident, but we just felt like … it’s ours to win if we don’t mentally do something to take ourselves out of the game.”

A case of nerves must be a good thing for Woodland, which shot 56.6 percent from the field en route to the 82-53 victory in Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.

Shalyn Strain scored 12 of her 14 points in the first half, and Leah Strain scored 22 of her 29 in the second as the Bobcats (31-1) cruised into Saturday's 9 a.m. final against Lanett, which beat North Sand Mountain 58-52 Wednesday night.

Jaide Walker added 15 points for Woodland, which shot 63 percent in the second half. The Bobcats hit 8 of 17 shots beyond the 3-point arc.

And to think all Woodland had going on in this game.

Senior guard Shanna Strain and junior forward Jaycee Carter had stomach viruses Tuesday, and Larry Strain quarantined the rest of his team.

Shalyn Strain, Shanna’s twin sister, “didn’t even get to spend the night at her house last night,” said Larry Strain, who makes a point to put names on water bottles to separate them and keep his players from spreading a possible virus. “We’re out here yesterday at practice, and Shanna’s throwing up, and we’re all running from her.”

There’s also the sense that Woodland’s front-line players are making their final run together. Leah, Shanna and Shalyn Strain are seniors, as is Walker. They were four of five starters on last season’s state-title team.

Katelyn Sicotte and Makayla Ford are seniors, as well.

Larry Strain gave an emotional pregame speech, showing the seniors a group picture of them as third-graders. He reminded them that the next game could be their last together.

“I’ve been playing with these girls since I was, what, third grade, I guess?” said Leah Strain, Larry’s daughter. “They’re always there. Not just here in this, but we used to play AAU together when we were in elementary school.

“These are my teammates and my family -- not just my cousins, but everybody is like a family on the team.”

With all of that as Wednesday’s backdrop, Woodland played like a team that very much wants to keep playing. The Bobcats also played like a defending state champion with lots of weapons.

Sand Rock, which lost to Woodland 62-42 earlier this season, had to pick its poison made a point to keep Leah Strain occupied in the first half. Madison McCullough guarded her in the half-court, and other players made Leah Strain work to bring the ball up court.

When Leah Strain attempted to drive, Courtney Rowe backed off Shalyn Strain and help. Leah Strain found her cousin, who went 3-for-5 on treys.

“Opening the game, I feel like the biggest factor was that Sand Rock was trying to tire Leah out,” Larry Strain said. “They were trying to take Leah out of the game to some degree, not allowing her to drive, and we were really fortunate for some other players to step up and play.”

Leah Strain’s first basket, a layup to put Woodland up 13-8, came at 1:40 of the first quarter. Shalyn Strain was ready when Rowe backed off her to help on Leah Strain.

“Coach always tells me, if I’m open, take my time and bust it,” Shalyn Strain said. “That’s what I tried to do.”

Leah Strain finished with 10 assists in her first game in The Pete since signing with JSU.

Woodland built a 33-22 lead at halftime and quickly upped it in the second half, forcing Sand Rock to press. That made it a transition game, and Leah Strain hit 7 of 9 shots in the second half.

The Bobcats led by as many as 30 points in the fourth quarter ... 64-34 on two Leah Strain free throws with 6:05 to play.

Emily Langley led Sand Rock with 18 points, and McCullough added 14. The Wildcats finished their season at 28-4.

“Woodland is a good team, a very good team,” Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates said. “We’ve known since JSU last year that, if we get to JSU, we’re going to line up with Woodland first. We’ve been talking about it all summer and all fall, trying to get to a point where we can compete with Woodland.

“They’ve heard it until they’re about blue in the face, but Woodland is a good team and so well-rounded, and that’s what makes it extremely hard to defend.”

Even when the Bobcats are a nervous, emotional and ailing bunch.

Contact Sports Columnist Joe Medley at jmedley@annistonstar.com. On Twitter, @jmedley_star.
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