When the ball is tossed into the air tonight at 7:30 at the Raider Dome, the third-ranked Bearettes will be looking to make it three straight district titles, having defeated the Lady Raiders the last two seasons. Cleveland won the crosstown title tilts in 2007 and 2008.
Coach Jason Reuter has posted a near 90 winning percentage (83-10) since taking over the storied Bearette program, including 38 straight against district opponents.
Ranked no lower than fourth in every Associated Press state poll this season and third in the final rankings, Bradley has notched 24 victories in 26 games this season. The two losses came to teams that won state titles in North Carolina and Georgia and has numerous college signees on their current squads.
Cleveland, on the other hand, had to overcome some injury and disciplinary problems this season, but has everybody back and playing strong, including a hard fought 50-41 victory over second-seeded McMinn County in Saturday’s semifinals.
Coach Mindy Kiser is in her second year at the Lady Raider helm and has won better than 70 percent of her games (37-15), including an 18-8 mark so far this season.
The Bearettes won both regular season games between the two, 60-47 back in November and 56-21 in the middle of January on a night where four Lady Raiders were suspended and the other did not play as well. The 21 was the lowest point total in at least 20 years by a Cleveland team, dating back to a Feb. 19, 1996, game against McMinn County where it scored 22 points. That was also the last time the Lady Raiders didn’t advance past the district tournament.
Bradley has played in 29 straight region tournaments and 55 of the last 56 with a 2-19 Cleveland team responsible for the one absence after upsetting legendary coach Jim Smiddy’s 1983-84 team by a 43-41 score in the opening round of the district tournament.
Regardless of who wins tonight’s championship, both squads will open the Region 3-AAA Tournament at home Friday evening against either White County (18-11) or Cumberland County (10-20), who play in the District 6-AAA consolation game this evening.
In tonight’s District 5-AAA consolation skirmish at 6 p.m., Walker Valley (15-14) will take on McMinn County (18-8).
After giving Bradley one of its toughest battles (58-53) this season in their final home game of the regular season, coach Jessica Stone’s Lady Mustangs fell to the Bearettes in Saturday’s semifinals by a 53-36 margin. Walker Valley brought Rhea County’s (19-9) season to a close with a 52-48 win in Friday’s quarterfinals.
McMinn County (18-8) won both meetings between the two teams in the regular season and, as was Rhea County, are currently enjoying their first winning record in many seasons.
Both the Lady Mustangs and Lady Cherokees will open the region tournament on the road Friday, traveling to either Cookeville (20-10) or Coffee County (15-13), depending on tonight’s results.
The District 5-AAA boys championship and consolation games will be played Tuesday evening at the Raider Dome.
Fourth-seeded Walker Valley (17-11) and No. 3 Bradley Central (16-11) both pulled off upsets in Saturday semifinals and will meet for the title, like they did in both 2008 and 2009.
The Mustangs knocked off top-seeded Ooltewah (17-8) 62-59 to earn its shot at the crown, while the Bears manhandled Cleveland (17-10), the No. 2 seed, 54-39 on Saturday. The host Blue Raiders and Owls will square off in Tuesday’s consolation game at 6 p.m.
Walker Valley and Bradley will open region play at home Saturday evening at 7 against either Cookeville (25-7) or Warren County (13-19), while Cleveland and Ooltewah will have to journey to either Cumberland County (16-15) or White County (19-10).
Up in Athens this evening, both Polk County squads will be playing in District 5-AA consolation games to determine their seeding for region play.
The Wildkittens (6-20) will battle Meigs County (23-6) at 6 p.m., while the Wildcats (7-22) will take on Sequoyah (15-12) at 7:30.
Although the location of the region openers is still to be determined, the Benton girls will play either East Hamilton (21-9) or Howard on Friday night, while the Polk boys will take on either Brainerd (14-11) or Howard (22-5) in Saturday’s Region 3-AA openers.
(Historical information in this story was provided by local radio broadcaster and area sports historian Gary Ownbey.)