The best high school team I've seen in our area's history was Westside's 1994-95 team. Good friends Ricky Moore and Will Avery led the Patriots to a state title and USA Today pegged the team as our nation's ninth best. Four years later, Moore and Avery met again as opponents in the NCAA national championship game (Moore's UConn Huskies defeated Avery's Duke Blue Devils in an instant classic). That this team was great is obvious. One of the neatest things about that team was the spectacle at its games. There was never an empty seat, home or away, when Westside played.
I have made quite the fuss over this season's Laney Wildcats. Although the Wildcats have been to five consecutive state playoff semifinals and won a state championship in 2012, this team is playing at a higher level than any of those teams. They won consistently at the AA level. This team has beaten the state's biggest and best schools. And most who follow high school hoops believe the Wildcats are the favorite to win the state championship in its new AAA classification. But I'll take it a step further and say Laney may finish the season with a resume better than any area team since that Westside team of 20 years ago.
The Wildcats have logged early wins over Pebblebrook and Norcross (both 6A), Stephenson (5A), and defending AAA state champion Morgan County. These are impressive, tangible results. But something I've noticed that is more intangible is what brought that old Westside team to mind as a comparison: the crowds at Laney's games this season. Whether it be the November matchup with Morgan County at home, a neutral court tip-off tourney contest with Stephenson, or last week's region matchups with Glenn Hills (on the road) and Westside, there was one common element: no empty seats in the stands. Hoops fans understand what Laney is doing. And they are not missing any opportunities to witness it in person.
But there is also a difference between the teams 20 years removed from each other. Ricky instantly recalled it in a fun interview I did with him for the blog in 2012. That Westside team faced serious competition. Thomson was dynamite, led by Pittsburg and NBA bound Vonteego Cummings and Florida bound Antron Lee. And Richmond Academy, who featured three eventual division 1 players, including Seton Hall Pirate Ty Shine, actually beat Westside twice during the regular season. Additionally, every team gave the Patriots their best shot. During Laney's first week of region play, this element of competitiveness has been missing. Despite a supportive crowd, Glenn Hills looked very tentative at home Tuesday, and Laney sprinted out to a 35-9 lead in the second quarter. And the Wildcats literally beat the 2014 version of the Westside Patriots by 50 Friday.
I anticipated fun battles between our area's AAA teams. There is plenty of basketball to be played. The teams that have been humbled by Laney have a chance to redeem themselves in coming region action. Teams like Josey and Washington County have players with competitive spirits who I presume will not lay down when the time comes. And I have already said Butler should take a back seat to no one. After avenging an early season road loss to Heritage Saturday with an 88-81 home win, the Bulldogs (9-1) have now beaten every team in their path. And more importantly, the senior heavy team won its first two region games, both on the road, versus Josey and Washington County. As was the case before AAA region play began, I expect Laney to be tested. I have circled January 9, the date when Butler visits Laney, as must see hoops action.
As Westside taught us and Ricky reminded me, great teams need great competition from other great teams. Here is hoping the AAA teams in our area realize the Wildcats put their pants on one leg at a time. And that effort does wonders on a basketball court. And that we will have one or more great teams that eventually rival that 20 year old Westside team's accomplishments.
***Here are some posts from the past about Laney***
Dec 25, 2014
The full gyms at Laney's games remind me of something
Dec 16, 2014
Laney hustles its way to another huge win
Dec 9, 2014
Laney's Secret Sauce: Playing Harder (Easier said than done)
Laney Beats Morgan County at Home
Nov 24, 2014
Friday at the Will Avery Tip-Off Tournament
Nov 16, 2014
Laney falls short in season opening thriller
Nov 11, 2014
Laney Opens Season with Nationally Ranked St. Francis
July 11, 2014
Brooks, Taylor, and Walker: ABR Live Summer Send-off
Nov 25, 2013
Laney and Aquinas Open Season with a Statement
March 15, 2012
Laney Makes History