Discover more from Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning
So you want to be a sportswriter: How to preview prep hoops playoffs when you've got just one story to burn
Yet another sign of the print journalism times, the sports editor of The Norman Transcript until a few days ago, Jesse Crittenden, has taken a job with OUInsider, a primarily pay service that covers all Sooner sports and is an affiliate of 247Sports — which is also associated with CBS Sports — which covers college sports nationwide and whose recruiting coverage is probably the nation’s best and certainly its most expansive.
Crittenden has taken the job Joey Helmer left to go to Heartland Sports, yet another internet operation, which covers Big 12 Sports. Each entity operates independently of the athletic departments they cover.
The Transcript certainly hopes to hire an additional sports guy or gal, but it’s never that easy for the properties of CNHI, The Transcript’s parent company, whose headquarters are in Montgomery, Alabama. Once, when I was in charge of The Transcript’s sports operation we essentially counted 4 1/2 sports people in the department. My last two years there, post the heart of the pandemic, we had two. Momentarily, at least, there is now only one.
I’ve never quit stringing for my old paper, and now I may be doing more for it, one of them being the story I’m including below, previewing the opening of the big-school high school basketball playoffs, Class 4A and below having already began their postseasons.
So here’s the lesson for other small newspaper sports staffs, many of which may include but one person:
You probably cover multiple high schools and multiple boys and girls teams and given staff shortages it’s impossible to advance each squad you cover, i.e. give each their own story … and even harder at a place like The Transcript, which is also covering a major university’s sports programs and trying to compete with The Oklahoman in that realm.
The art is in picking one team, with the most compelling story, to give the story, too, but to also, with sleight of hand near the top of the story, recognize and acknowledge the other teams. It can be done very clumsily in a most-hard-to-read fashion, or it can somehow be weaved into one natural narrative.
That’s the trick.
And if you can find space to run a schedule for all the teams your readership may follow, that becomes a second way to acknowledge everybody, not just the team for which your story’s the focus.
Having covered high school sports in this state since 1993, I feel like I know all the tricks, shortcuts and sleights of hand to make coverage appear bigger than the effort required to deliver it. On a small staff — all I’ve ever known — those tricks are a necessity that allow you to move on to the next story, where you may have to employ the same tricks again.
What you need most of all to pull it off are details.
The brackets are at OSSAA.com. What the teams have done to date can be found at OSSAARankings.com. It’s good to have historical knowledge. As I’ve said forever, you should be your own primary source for everything you write.
The quotes serve you more than you serve them.
On the off chance you learn something you never knew and it’s a better story idea than the one you walked in with, be a journalist and adjust on the fly.
That will do for now.
Read on to see if I pulled it off.
And on the off chance you enjoy compelling hoops, get to a game for crying out loud. The playoffs begin in a few hours.
By Clay Horning
For The Transcript
It’s that time.
Only because the month has yet to turn do we not think of it as part of March Madness, too.
It is the big school basketball playoffs, each squad aiming for the state tournament, each with a loss to play with … sort of.
The girls open tonight.
The boys open Friday.
Lose and you’re done, finished, finito.
Win and your path becomes double-elimination instead.
For the first time in a bit, all four Norman squads should be feeling quite good about themselves.
A year ago, you could count Norman North girls’ victories on one hand. Yet this one, under second-year coach Al Beal, they enter the postseason with 14 wins.
At 6 tonight, they’re at Putnam City West, tipping off with Southmoore.
The NHS girls are where they’ve been what seems like forever, believing their destination to be the state tournament with designs on winning it upon arrival.
They’re home tonight, tipping off with Muskogee a few minutes after the 6 p.m. contest between Sand Springs and Stillwater, also at NHS, concludes.
The North boys, though they enter the postseason with one more loss than wins, they’re also as hot as anybody in Class 6A, having won seven of eight to close the regular season.
They begin their playoff quest at 6 p.m. Friday against Northwest Classen inside, of all places, the NHS Gym.
Then there’s the Norman High boys who, get this, are opening the postseason on their home court for the first time since 2006.
They’ve also won seven of eight to close the regular season and take on U.S. Grant about 15 minutes after the Timberwolves and Knights finish on the same floor.
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“Belief,” Tiger coach Cory Cole said has been the starting point for the program’s new-found success. “This is home, Norman’s a winning program, winning culture, just re-establishing that.”
Cole may have buried the lead.
Because belief without action … well, you know.
“We just bond together,” senior forward Matt Willenborg said. “We spent last year, it was tough, but we spent more time bonding to go for this year and we just made it work. There were some conflicts, but we fixed those.
He didn’t say “addressed.”
He said “fixed.”
“One of the things he’s really good at is holding people accountable,” senior point guard Caison Cole, Cory’s son, said of his father. “Each person down the line gets the same treatment.
“It’s not one person getting coached harder than the other … I think it’s consistency with each person, showing that he cares.”
If one opponent runs through the Tigers’ season, it’s Westmoore, the No. 2 seed in the western half of the brackets, one spot in front of NHS.
The first meeting between the squads, a 55-45 Tiger victory on the second day of the Joe Lawson Memorial Invitational made an impression on Willenborg.
“There wasn’t really much of a crowd there. It was really just kind of us versus them,” he said. “I think we produced our own energy, from the bench and on the court. We were just producing. Our defense was good, our offense was flowing and we stopped their main guys.”
If that told NHS what it was capable of, it was a rematch with the Jaguars almost a month later at the Putnam City Invitational that told Cory Cole what work remained.
Westmoore won 55-47.
“We had a 10-point lead … We learned a lot about ourselves. We didn’t finish for the first time, ” Cole said. “Westmoore was the more physical team, made the plays.
“So we scrapped a few things that we had done pretty well, but it was kind of like, ‘This ain’t going to work when we need it to work’ … We kind of spiraled a bit as we switched some things.”
NHS lost two more games before coming back strong, winning two of three at Carl Albert’s Titan Classic and winning the rest — including a 56-55 triumph at Westmoore Feb. 7 — but one, since.
The secret sauce?
“Just being more physical, Cole said. “Really sharing the sugar and finding the right shot … Making sure we have a defense-first mindset. Taking some pride in really sitting in a stance for longer than 10 seconds.”
As luck would have it, should the Tigers win their next two games and the Jaguars win their next two, NHS and Westmoore would meet for a fourth time a week from Friday at a site to be determined, the winner going directly to the state tournament.
Heightening the drama?
Should they win Friday, the second game of the Tigers’ playoff journey, tipping at 7 p.m. Saturday, could well come against the only team to hand it a loss since Jan. 20: crosstown rival Norman North.
It’s a wonderful time of the year.
Prep Hoops Playoffs
Class 6A girls
At Putnam City West
Norman North vs. Southmoore, 6 p.m.
Northwest Classen at P.C. West, 7:30 p.m.
At Norman High
Sand Springs vs. Stillwater, 6 p.m.
Norman High vs. Muskogee, 7:30 p.m.
Class 5A girls
Noble vs. Guthrie, 6 p.m.
Santa Fe South at Piedmont, 7:30 p.m.
Next: Winners meet 2 p.m., Saturday, same sites
Class 6A boys
At Norman High
Norman North vs. NW Classen, 6 p.m.
U.S. Grant at Norman High, 7:30 p.m.
Class 5A boys
At Del City
Noble vs. Durant, 6 p.m.
McAlester at Del City, 7:30 p.m.
Next: Winners meet 7 p.m., Saturday, same sites