Claiming their fourth region 1-A title in seven seasons, the Cloudland Highlanders earned themselves some home cooking on Monday when they host Oneida in the sub-state clash that will send the winner to Murfreesboro.
Junior guard Taylor Whitehead – regional tournament MVP – won not one game, but two in a row with last second shots that knocked off Unaka 64-62 and Hampton 47-46 in the regional final.
Last season the ‘Landers got to the TSSAA state tournament but were defeated 52-37 in the opening game by Middleton, but that experience could be what puts this years’ Cloudland squad over the top.
“Our goal every year is to win the state title,” said Cloudland head coach Brandon Carpenter. “We’ll keep plugging away and trying to knock that door down until we finally succeed. It’s great to be able to play this game at Smith gym. It’s so tough to win on the road, so being home I hope will put us over the top.”
Cloudland (22-12) has played as tough a schedule as you could ask for a single-A school, taking on the likes of Sullivan East, David Crockett, Unicoi County and other higher classified schools in order to provide an on-going test for its players.
“We played about as tough a schedule as you could ask for,” Carpenter said. “It’s all about preparing us for this time of year. From here on out every team we face will be a top team in the state and Oneida is right up there.”
The Indians (25-11) feature a senior laden squad led by forwards Jake Wright and Clay Jeffers. Oneida will be bolstered by the return of point guard Noah Duncan who missed the region 2-A final against Wartburg, but looks to be back in action on Monday night.
“We are very hopeful of getting Duncan back by Monday,” said Indians head coach Rusty Yaden. “He missed the region final with the flu and has been sick since, but we hope that over the weekend he’ll recover and help us on the court.”
Having a good many holdover players who experienced the state tournament last season will be a definite advantage for Cloudland who appear to be a battle tested bunch at this stage.
“This team is like family, no doubt,” said Carpenter. “We stressed that from the beginning of the season and the kids are really a tight group. They are the best practice team I have ever been around. It’s really all business with them and from top-to-bottom they have good chemistry together.”
Oneida fell short in its bid for a home contest with a 66-55 loss at Wartburg Central in a game that Duncan did not participate in, which coach Yaden felt may have been the difference.
“Duncan makes our offense go,” Yaden stated. “He’s on the point and he settles things down when it gets chaotic. We saw Cloudland twice this season, once at the Harriman Christmas tournament and they are a tough team.
“They are as experienced as team as you can have for as young as they are, but the big thing is they will be playing at home. That’s as big of an advantage as you can have.”
Game time is set for 7 p.m. at Sonny Smith Gym. The gates open at 5:30, and there will be no pregame ticket sales.