Tuesday, February 02, 2010

SPORTS >> Success Abundant

Leader sportswriter

Abundant Life’s victory at Conway St. Joseph in mid January all but wrapped up the 5-2A North Conference title for the Owls and gave Abundant Life two consecutive season sweeps of its primary league adversary.

But Abundant Life coach Tim Ballard is hoping history doesn’t repeat itself from this point forward.

The Owls actually beat the Bulldogs three times last year, including one last showdown in the district finals. But St. Joe ended up on the more favorable side of the state tournament bracket, away from 2A state tournament host Melbourne.

That was where the Owls found themselves in the quarterfinals, as the Bearkatz, with home-court advantage, sent them home two rounds shy of a fourth meeting with Conway St. Joseph.

St. Joe went on to beat Melbourne in the finals to claim the 2A championship.

“I’m trying to prepare for the worst,” Ballard said. “You may have to beat a top-tier team just to get to state. You could have a game that could be a state final four if someone slips in their district tournament, and that is a concern to me.”

The Owls, who played Little Rock Lutheran on Tuesday, beat Bigelow in their previous game to improve to 25-4, 9-0. Point guard Mike Stramiello led Abundant Life with 13 points while George Herring, Garrett Southerland and Tanner Cypret scored 12 each.

While Cypret is just now emerging as a threat for Abundant Life, Stramiello, Herring and Southerland have alternated as Ballard’s go-to guys for the entire season.

“They have been there every game,” Ballard said. “I figured that would be the case. It hasn’t surprised me at all.”

Southerland, a lanky 6-6 post player, is also an advanced-placement student at Abundant Life. He possesses an outside shooting ability absent in many big guys, but college interest in Southerland has surprisingly been lukewarm to this point.

“I’ve had a couple of smaller colleges calling and asking about him, but he hasn’t gotten any offers,” Ballard said. “He’s an outstanding high school player, but he doesn’t have that natural ability that wows colleges.”

While Southerland’s outside touch and height are nice attributes, he may not be physical enough or lacks the deception that interests college recruiters, Ballard said.

“If you didn’t know him, you would say he’s a 6-6 post that can play outside,” Ballard said. “But he’s not overly strong, overly athletic, overly fast. If you knew him, you would know you could do well by picking him. He’s the best kid I’ve coached as far as being a great person. He’s a real humble person.”

Southerland leads the Owls with an average 21 points and nine rebounds a game. Herring is not far behind with 19 points a game and Stramiello weighs in with 16 points a game.

Stramiello played most of his junior high and high school career as a shooting guard, but made the move to the point at the start of this season.

“I had other point guards, but not anyone with his size and toughness,” Ballard said. “He’s a good scoring point guard, and he gets a better feel for the position every week. He’s what I call a savvy player, but he’s also one of those street-tough kids.”

There is a strong possibility of another Abundant Life-Conway St. Joseph showdown in the 5-2A North district finals. The two will most likely enter as the respective No. 1 and No. 2 seeds with Conway Christian a probable third.

But given the unpredictable outcome of last year, and with many observers and prognosticators picking Abundant Life to breeze to a state title, Ballard said he is not counting on anything.

“Any tournament — even college — how often do you end up with four No. 1 seeds? It doesn’t happen often,” Ballard said. “I’m not sure that if St. Joe would have played Melbourne at home if they would have won. That’s a tough thing to do.

“I don’t look at it as this should be our year. I hope it turns out to be, and I feel like it could be, but I also know that the game of basketball is a crazy thing.”