DALTON, Ga. — Jeff McKinney has found himself answering the questions more than he would like, but his answers — perhaps a bit generic and definitely politically correct — have quite a bit of truth to them.
Just how good is this Dalton Lady Catamounts basketball team and could they be the best the area has produced?
At 31-0 entering Friday’s GHSA Class AAA semifinal against Crisp County (4 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex), the debate surrounding Dalton’s credentials has reached a fever pitch on internet message boards. Critics point to a rather weak Region 7, something McKinney doesn’t argue, and only a few quality non-league wins (Chattanooga Baylor and playoff wins over Carrollton and St. Pius X were the best) as reasons to think the Lady Cats are overrated at No. 2.
McKinney smiles at the criticism, then tries to put a different spin on his retort. He has never espoused a belief that this team is the most talented he’s seen, or even coached.
“Every team has its own trademark,” he said. “The thing about this team is that its chemistry is better than any team I’ve ever had. We’ve probably had more talented teams, but I will say this one has more assets than the others. The combination of players we have is unique.”
Dalton isn’t a deep team, which isn’t a bad thing in McKinney’s mind since the coach prefers to use a small rotation. What it has is talent and experience in the backcourt in seniors Amanda Rector and April Besley, good-shooting wings in Maddie Howell and Chandler McKinney and an often-dominating center in 6-foot-5 senior Quaneisha McCurty.
It’s a combination that led St. Pius coach Kyle Snipes to say Dalton is the favorite to bring home the championship.
“They can shoot the ball from the outside, they defend, they’re smart and they have a big girl who can score and stop any team’s inside game,” he said moments after Dalton’s 50-36 quarterfinal win. “This is the kind of complete basketball team you’re used to seeing win these things.
Were the Lady Cats to win the championship — and that would have to include a finals win over either fellow undefeated and top-ranked Washington County, or the team most have tabbed as the favorite, defending champion Columbia — it would end a 23-year drought for northwest Georgia teams.
Lamar Turner’s undefeated Chattooga team in 1988 was the last, two years following Rossville’s epic win over rival Ringgold in the Class AAA finals under Sharon Vantrease. Since that time, six programs have finished as runner-up, including three Gene Durden-coached Dade County teams, and four others reached the final four. The area has back-to-back runners-up in Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe in 2009 and Northwest Whitfield last season.
Dalton made it to the title game in 1987 under Scott Brackett, while McKinney’s best finish came in 2003 when his first Dalton team, led by current assistant coach Christen Brown, made the quarters. As a sophomore, Brown and the Lady Cats made the semis under Jannette Carroll. Brown, like McKinney, hesitates to make comparisons.
“It’s hard to to that because all the teams are different,” she said. “This team is resilient and they’re hungry. I don’t think being undefeated means much to them. The championship is all that matters right now. Of course, having that perfect record means we’ll have a target on our backs.”
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...