CARBON HILL — Mired in a five-game losing streak and with its top player on the shelf with an injury, Carbon Hill wasn’t exactly a playoff favorite heading down the home stretch of the season.
But Coach Garrett Kirkland’s squad hit its stride when it mattered most, taking down both Oakman and Susan Moore on the road to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Kirkland’s senior season in 2013.
Kirkland is the Eagle Elite Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
Carbon Hill got off to a fast start this season and was 10-3 when leading scorer Ishmael Jones went down with an ankle injury in the Bulldogs’ second area game.
Though the team suffered through ups and downs without Jones, there was a silver lining.
“In an odd way, that helped us,” Kirkland said. “We had a lot of guys who stepped up at that point — young guys who didn’t have a lot of time on varsity. I think it prepared us for the playoffs and the area tournament. That’s one thing that really stood out.”
After the losing streak, Carbon Hill found its footing, winning three straight games and advancing to the championship game of the Walker County Tournament where the Bulldogs lost to Cordova.
Jones returned to the team in time for the area tournament. Though Carbon Hill lost its two regular-season games to Oakman, the Bulldogs eliminated the Wildcats in the area tournament opener to extend the season. Carbon Hill fell in a back-and-forth area championship game at Winfield, 47-43, putting the team on the road for their sub-region matchup.
Carbon Hill played one of its best games of the season at Susan Moore, winning 66-50 to earn a spot in the Northwest Regional Tournament.
“It says a lot about our guys. Any time you have to go on the road as a runner up and play an area champion, it’s always tough. We went over there and got up on them early. I think we hit seven 3s in the first half,” Kirkland said. “It was a big win for us. We were happy to make the Sweet 16. I’m proud of the guys. This is year three and we were hoping to get over the hump. The last two years we had lost some tough games in the area tournament. (This year) we got through the area and took it a step further. Maybe we set the standard for next season.”
Though the season ended with a disappointing overtime loss to Danville, the team took a step forward in 2020-21, finishing 17-14.
“I want to give my thanks to the assistant coaches. It’s a unique staff. One is my former college teammate (Telvin Wilkerson), one is my former high school teammate (Daniel Woodard) and one is a former player (Jacob Woodard). We have a lot of trust with each other. It’s the best staff I could hope for. We work well together.”