By D. Mark Mitchell

The Opelika Lady Bulldogs basketball team beat Hillcrest of Tuscaloosa 63-58 in the finals of the Central Regional at the Alabama State University Acadome last Wednesday.
The win moved the team to 23-9 overall and earned the Lady Bulldogs a trip to the AHSAA Final 54 (the official title from the Alabama High School Athletic Association because of naming rights) at Legacy Arena at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex. OHS will play the 22-4 Ramsey Rams today at noon.
Coach Devin Booth’s team only lost two games since January, to Deshler and Auburn. A strong team effort led to multiple 20-40 point blowouts. Opelika beat Paul Bryant 80-25 in the second round of the AHSAA 6A Tournament.
Starting the fourth quarter of their regional final last Wednesday, Opelika and Hillcrest walked on the court with the score knotted at 43-43. The Lady Bulldogs scored 20 points including several clutch free throws, down the stretch to win the game, 63-58. Claire Worth, Alexis Browning and Kaitlyn Bryant combined to hit 13- of-21 free throws.
Four players scored double digits, led by Browning’s team-high 15 points. Anita Payne scored 14, Quala Walton added 12 and Worth chipped in 11. Opelika also out-rebounded Hillcrest 42-33.
“I am so happy for these kids. They work so hard, do as we ask and played their heart out,” Booth said. “We are blessed … Hillcrest won 28 games for a reason. They are good, but today was our day.”
Ramsey beat Homewood 73-49 to advance to the Final Four, where the Rams will have home-court advantage playing in their home city.
Opelika is expecting a good crowd, with three student buses and many other fans expecting to make the 2-hour trip to downtown Birmingham.
Fans can listen to the game on 97.7 KICKER FM and online at Tip-off is set for noon, with pregame set for 11:45 a.m.
The Opelika boys and girls tennis teams both beat Smiths Station last week. The girls beat the Panthers 8-1, with strong performances from the following: Sara Hollis Smith T 8-1, Mary Bentley Barfield 8-2, Martlynn Grouby 8-3, Readen Gagliano 8-1 and Blake Bell 8-2.
The following boys won matches against the Wildcats: Connor Pruitt 8-2, Wilson Hudson 9-8, Grayson Crowley 8-4 and Ben Estes 8-6.
The OHS baseball team is 3-2 after the first week of the season. Opelika beat Beauregard, Enterprise and Dadeville and lost to Sylacauga and Enterprise.
The Dawgs beat Dadeville 4-0 behind a stellar performance from pitcher Andrew Parr. The junior pitched a complete game, seven innings of shutout baseball while allowing two hits and striking out five. Jared Bartlett led the offense with three hits. Trent Fields added two hits while Micah Christian, TJ Jones and Parr singled.
The Dawgs racked up 11 hits to beat Beauregard 9-3 Saturday. Teakell Demunn, Broday Davis and Jared Bartlett led Opelika with two hits apiece. T.J. Jones, Trent Fields, Micah Christian and Jace Rhodes each added hits.
Jackson Reynolds pitched five innings, allowing no runs on three hits while striking out eight Hornet batters.
The Opelika boys soccer team tied Montgomery Catholic Prep School 2-2. The Bulldogs did not score in the first half but rallied for two goals in the second. Jafeht Marin scored both goals for Opelika.
The Lady Bulldogs beat Montgomery Catholic 7-2, behind two goals from Eleanor Wilson. Megan Noon, Kayla Phatsadavong, Abby Noon, Chasity Fisher and Estefany Alba each scored a goal. Goalkeeper Emily Lux handled several shot-on-goal attempts.
Opelika City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Neighbors introduced Erik Speakman as the new head football coach at a press conference last Wednesday inside the OHS indoor practice facility. The hiring came fewer than 24 hours after Caleb Ross accepted the Prattville High School job.
Speakman served as defensive coordinator the last seven seasons and was a assistant on the defense for 11 years prior. He was originally hired by Spence McCracken and worked under Brian Blackmon and Ross.
“To follow the footsteps of Coaches Gore, Wilson, Barfield, McCracken, Blackmon and Ross .. all the head coaches prior, its just an honor to be able to coach our kids and lead them on the field each week,” Speakman said about receiving the job.
Speakman is the second assistant coach hired as head football coach under Neighbors’ tenure as superintendent. Blackmon was promoted by Neighbors to succeed Hall-of-Famer McCracken. The hire paid huge dividends, as Blackmon won 69 games and guided Opelika to the schools’ first two trips to the finals. Ross was hired from the outside after winning a 7A state title at Mobile’s McGill-Toolen.
Neighbors said he did not need to search for a head coach, because of the last search a year ago when Speakman was one of the five potential candidates interviewed before Ross was hired.
Neighbors said he started talking with members of last year’s search committee after learning that Ross was the top choice to replace Chad Anderson at Prattville.
Speakman is married to Drew Parrent Speakman, and together they have five children: Bryce, Sarah Kate, Hollis, Griffin and Shep. They are members of First United Methodist Church in Opelika.
D. Mark Mitchell is sports director for iHeart Media, Alabama Dixie Boys State Director and vice president of the A-O Sports Council.