Conference basketball season tips off early this year for El Dorado, which opens 5A South play on Tuesday against White Hall at Wildcat Arena. Action begins at 5 p.m. with JV boys followed by varsity girls and varsity boys.
Both varsity teams went through tough non-conference schedules in hopes of being ready for league play. The Wildcats are 2-5 after going 0-3 in Blytheville’s Chickasaw Classic last week. The Lady Wildcats are 1-5 competing against the likes of Bentonville West, Bryant and Greenwood.
Both teams are happy to be zero-zero in the conference season.
“We’re super excited,” said girls coach Ashlee Curtis. “The girls understand, here’s your clean slate. It’s go time now. Everything we’ve done so far, it has mattered. It has transformed us for sure. Now we’re to the entree of the season. We’re to the meat and potatoes. We’re hoping to get over there to the dessert come March. We’re excited. Like we talked about at the beginning of the year, it’s an earlier jump than when it would normally start. But, we’re here and I think we’re as ready as we’re going to be.”
White Hall’s girls have also struggled to a 1-4 start to the season.
“I know they’re really young. They’ve got a new coach this year. They’re not the same team we played last year. They’ve got good guard play. But, they are pretty young,” said Curtis who had a one-word answer when asked El Dorado’s key to victory.
“Effort, bottom line effort, for us to give effort and for us to come out and play Lady Cat basketball, we should be fine. On the other hand, if we don’t show up, White Hall will definitely let us know that we didn’t show up.”
The Wildcats had a busy week with three games in three days, beginning with an overtime loss to Manila followed by losses to Paragould and North Little Rock.
“Manila is a really good team, really fundamental. They’re just a really scrappy and a non-quit type of team,” said Coach Jimmy Porter, whose team led with three seconds remaining before the Lions hit a halfcourt shot to send the game into overtime.
“We had an opportunity to seal that game and we didn’t execute as a program. We gave them that opportunity to send it into overtime. That’s a learning experience for us. Truthfully, we haven’t been in a lot of close-game situations. That was a really good learning experience. I thought we grew from that.
“Paragould threw a different look at us. They threw a really compacted 2-3 zone where they backed off and pretty much said, go ahead and shoot it. I thought we settled way too much versus Paragould. The biggest issue was defensively. We struggled defensively guarding the basketball and being in proper position. We had a really good heart-to-heart and a good practice that night and talked about the things we needed to fix.
“North Little Rock is probably a top three team in the state, regardless of classification. I’m not big on moral victories, but our guys responded the right way. They went into that game together and they stuck to our game plan. I was really proud of our effort, really proud of our togetherness that we showed through a tough three-game stretch. I’m excited to see how our boys respond to conference play.”
White Hall’s boys are 3-4 and feature 6-foot-7 sophomore guard Jai’chaunn Hayes.
“He has an offer from Ole Miss,” said Porter. “He’s a really good player. He can score at all three levels. He can get to the rim. He has a nice pull-up jumper and he can shoot the three ball really well. What makes White Hall tough is they’re really long and athletic and they play really scrappy. They love to play in transition. If we can limit their transition points and force them to take long contested shots, don’t give them easy two points from turning the ball over or letting them get to the rim, I think we’ll have a chance to win it.”
Like the Lady Wildcats, the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule didn’t produce a lot of victories. But, Porter believes it provided the fuel necessary for a long conference race.
“Obviously, conference play is what matters. We want to win every game but the games before conference are really just to try to figure ourselves out - figure out our strengths, figure out our weaknesses and try to fix them before we hit conference play,” he said. “Overall, I think we scheduled a tough-enough non-conference schedule to get a true gauge on where we’re at going into conference. We know what we’re good at. We know what we need to work on.”
Porter described White Hall as a “high-pressure team.” Limiting turnovers and stopping the Bulldogs’ transition offense will be keys along with defensive rebounding.
“Our main focus is on the defensive side. We feel confident we can score. We feel confident we can execute. But, defensively, we have to be able to get stops. We have to stop the basketball in transition and we have to be able to keep people out of the paint. When we can collectively do that as a unit, I think we’re going to see things start to go our way.”
Both teams are thrilled to be playing in front of friendly, purple-clad fans. They’ve each played just one home game this season.
“I think our guys are ready to play at home. That’s another part of our scheduling. We wanted to play on the road,” said Porter. “We wanted to challenge our guys and push our guys to get that on-road experience. In our conference, you have to be able to execute on the road and steal an away game or two if you want to play in the state tournament.”
The Lady Wildcats’ lone win was at home against Texas High.
“Our fans are undefeated. El Dorado fans come out all the time and they’ll actually get to see boys and girls. Everybody is always asking, ‘When are ya’ll going to start playing together again?’ We’re excited, home opener for our first conference game,” said Curtis. “We’re excited. Coming in, not a lot of people are expecting a lot from us. We like that. We like for people not to expect anything from us. We can come out and let our play speak for ourselves.”