The Woodland girls basketball team has been stuck in an absolutely brutal nine-team Region 7-AAAAA the past four seasons. The region has consistently produced multiple top-10 teams every year, including the past two Class 5A runners-up.
Needless to say, the Wildcats and head coach Kyle Morgan are thrilled to be a part of a new-look region that includes just six teams, offering a much more realistic path to playoff qualification. As such, Woodland expects to be able to finish inside the top four in the region to punch a ticket to the state tournament.
"Our expectations for this season are for us to give our best effort mentally and physically at every practice and game," Morgan said. "We have goals that are dependent on individuals buying in to the team concept where nobody worries about who gets the credit. Our level of success will be determined by how hard, smart and together we play each possession.
"We hope to qualify for one of the four spots in our region that will guarantee us a spot in the state playoffs."
Despite coming off a 5-21 season, the Wildcats certainly appear to have a legitimate chance at postseason play. Two-thirds of those losses came in regular-season games against their region foes.
Woodland will also bring back several of its main rotation players — although they did graduate a few seniors, including Carli Clymer. The Wildcats have Jordan Thompson — one of the top players in Bartow County — returning, along with fellow seniors Ansley Evans, Callie Jones and Gracie Styles.
"We have several veterans who we are expecting to lead by example in all areas," Morgan said. "While we know we will more than likely face adversity due to the current pandemic, our seniors will be forced to be flexible and adjust to whatever adversity is thrown our way."
Along with the seniors, Morgan expects juniors Abigail Taylor (a returning starter) and Dylynn Motes to provide important contributions. Senior Morgan Cooper won't play this season after suffering a serious knee injury during a state playoff softball game, but Morgan noted that Cooper will still be a part of the team.
"Counting on this core group to be the backbone we can all rely on to navigate the team through whatever obstacles we face both on and off the court this season," Morgan said. "The majority of this group has played some of the toughest competition in the state each year while in high school, and they should be battle tested."
Woodland will open the season with three games in a Thanksgiving classic Saturday, Monday and Tuesday at Armuchee. Despite the disjointed offseason, Morgan believes his team is making the most of its opportunity to play this year.
"I think it goes without saying that the ability to prepare for this season has been like no other," he said. "It started in the summer, when we were only allowed to practice with social-distancing restraints, no intrasquad scrimmages and the timeline of all activities being pushed back due to COVID.
"In regards to this part of the season, we have had to make adjustments to start times due to the ability of students who are distance learning to get back to school for practice, COVID protocols and the day-to-day climate we are all experiencing. We are trying our best to focus on what we can control and be as productive as possible with the time we have together."
He knows the season itself will offer up even more challenges, as games will undoubtedly get canceled or rescheduled throughout the campaign. But his hope is that the Wildcats improve to the point where a region tournament game to qualify for state isn't too big of a hurdle to clear.
"It is a process for sure," Morgan said, "with continued growth expected as the season progresses."