ND sees familiar obstacle in drive to championship

Friday, March 15, 2002

Stockton coach Tony Armstrong is aware his team sneaked in and avoided radar in winning last year's Class 2A state title.

But he knows his current team has lost its stealth qualities.

Besides being the defending state champion, Stockton is 29-1 and top-ranked in the state.

What's more, it won the title at the expense of Notre Dame Regional High School, which it beat in the title game.

This time, Notre Dame (27-2), ranked third in the state, has the Tigers locked in its cross-hairs. In fact, the Bulldogs have been tracking Stockton all season, longing for the chance to avenge a 61-42 loss.

"I personally want to beat them because they beat us," Notre Dame senior Deana McCormick said.

That opportunity arrives today at 4:45 p.m. when the teams meet in a Class 2A semifinal at the Hearnes Center in Columbia, Mo.

The game will be the first semifinal, with the other featuring undefeated Elsberry (30-0), ranked No. 2 in 2A, and Seymour (29-1), ranked No. 5.

While the final four teams combine for a 115-4 record, the two best teams may be in the first semifinal.

Stockton's only loss came in double overtime to Lebanon, a state-ranked Class 4A team, in the finals of the KTXR Christmas Tournament in Springfield, Mo. They own a 20-point victory over Marshfield, which placed third in Class 3A, and a 15-point win over 4A Parkway South, one of the top teams in St. Louis.

"We've beat some good teams, but we consider Notre Dame as good, if not better, than anyone we've played," Armstrong said.

Both Notre Dame losses came against Poplar Bluff, which reached the Class 4A final four. The Bulldogs also own a victory over the Mules.

Stockton and Notre Dame, on 19-and 16-game winning streaks, respectively, both won by over 20 points in the quarterfinal round.

"I think it's two of the top teams in the state in any class," Armstrong said.

Notre Dame certainly knows plenty about Stockton this time.

The Tigers graduated Bulldog killer Jenna Armstrong -- daughter of the coach -- when she moved on to play for Iowa. Armstrong burned the Bulldogs for 30 points a year ago.

Freshman Kiana Bock scored 17 points in that game and, as one of four sophomores in the Stockton starting lineup, leads the team with 18.7 points per game. And while it's good news for Notre Dame that Armstrong is gone, Stockton was without two of its top players last year. Senior Kara Rutledge (15.6 ppg) and sophomore Jessica Stanley (11.2 ppg) both average in double figures after suffering season-ending ACL knee injuries last year.

Point guard Kyla Burns and Kalena Kenney round out Stockton's starting five.

"Honestly it's a surprise to me to have the record we've got, but we knew we'd be pretty good," Armstrong said.

Despite the absence of his daughter, Armstrong said he thinks this year's team is better offensively.

"Overall they may be," Grim said. "They don't have the Armstrong girl to rely on, but each kids has kind of stepped up and taken on a role of scoring. And they play great defense."

Four of the Tigers' starters shoot over 36 percent from 3-point range with Stanley (44 percent) and Kenney (42 percent) leading the way.

Notre Dame also has deadly outside shooting from sisters Lisa and Ashley Millham, who both shoot over 45 percent from behind the arc. The Bulldogs also like to play pressure defense.

"It's almost like twins playing each other," Armstrong said.

"We're teams that are similar," Grim said. "Not necessarily our personnel, but how we go about things. Stockton is a team that works hard and we can't take them for granted. And I'm sure they're not looking past us. They can all shoot, they can all penetrate, whatever has to be done."

Notre Dame has a strong history in the semifinals, having won all three of its previous games ('95, '97, '01). A win today could temporarily put a Stockton dynasty on hold. "I don't think they're as good a team yet as they will be," Grim said.


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