Anytime you put dogs and cats together…well…it’s going to be exciting! And Saturday night’s championship game between the Waldron Bulldogs and the Charleston Tigers was a classic confrontation between dogs and cats. It was a championship atmosphere in the Waldron Athletic Center, and both teams played a tremendous game to compete for the conference tournament championship. The Bulldogs completed the sweep of the conference season after winning the regular season championship and added the conference tournament championship to their trophy case with a win over Charleston.
Waldron, fresh off their 33 point win over Booneville in the semifinals, looked unbeatable going into the game. Charleston, coming off of an emotional road win over the number two seed in the tournament, the Cedarville Pirates, was playing good basketball going into the final, but fans quietly questioned if the Tigers had enough energy left to compete with the high-flying Bulldogs on their home floor and in front of the raucous Waldron fans. The answer was yes, and Charleston played a great game, taking the Bulldogs into the fourth quarter having reduced a big lead to just five points with a little less than three minutes to go in the game.
The Bulldogs are a very talented team, and this year’s team seems to be hungrier at this time of year to make a run in the state tournament. I have picked Waldron to make a run to the state semifinals, or the final four in Class 3A. The Bulldogs appear to be athletic and able to run with the powerhouse teams in the eastern part of Arkansas that are traditionally in the final two rounds of state competing for a state championship. Once in the state tournament, Waldron will face big, fast, and very athletic teams, such as Rivercrest, Osceola, Valley Springs, etc., that are used to competing for championships. But Waldron is playing their best basketball right now, and that is in contrast to last year’s team that was also a very good team.
But on Saturday night, there was a game to be played. And even though many thought the outcome was not in question, it is why it is said many times that this is why games are played, and the result is not “mailed in”. Waldron coach Josh Brown said it best, “It is hard to beat Charleston twice in one year.” And Charleston fans know that their Tigers, heading into any game, will always compete and leave everything they have on the floor, and that is exactly what happened Saturday night.
As the game began, the atmosphere built to a crescendo by tip-off. As I watched the crowd and listened to the National Anthem, I could only wonder what the arena atmosphere in Waldron would have been like in a non-COVID year. The Charleston fans had traveled to Waldron in good numbers, and the Waldron faithful had been lined up for entry into the buiding before 4:45 p.m. It was a great atmosphere, and the game was a lot of fun to watch if you are a fan of high school basketball.
Waldron came out of the starting gate fast and with a lot of energy. Both teams seemed to be a little “amped up” to start the game, and some errors were committed by both teams from what appeared to be too much adrenaline at the start of the game. But Waldron began to settle in, and the Tigers fought hard on every possession. The first quarter ended with Waldron in the lead, 17-13.
Waldron is a threat to score every time they cross center court. The Bulldog shooters took off and the Bulldogs had success scoring both inside and outside. It looked apparent that defensively, Waldron began to focus on slowly Charleston’s great sophomore point guard, Brandon Scott. Waldron picked up Scott from about three-quarters court and challenged him all the way down the floor on each possession. The Bulldogs were beginning to seperate from Charleston and had built a 13 point lead late in the half, until Brandon Scott hit a clutch three-point shot from the corner to pull the Tigers within ten points at the half. The shot gave Charleston momentum going in to the locker room and kept the game within reach for the Tigers. The score at halftime was Waldron 32, Charleston 22.
Charleston fought and clawed their way through the Bulldogs’ defense on every possession. The tough Waldron defense made Charleston pay dearly on each bucket made. But the Tigers could not capitalize on scoring opportunities, especially down low and underneath the basket, and by the time the third quarter ended, Waldron had extended their lead to 13. The score at the end of the third quarter was Waldron 43, Charleston 30.
But Charleston is a championship program, and their kids know how to respond and win big games. In all sports, this is the Charleston pedigree. Charleston continued to play hard, and with less than 3 minutes to play in the game, the Tigers had reduced the Waldron lead to five points. An amazing feat against a very good Waldron team and in front of a loud and supportive crowd for the Bulldogs. On a key possession late, Charleston had the ball and the opportunity to cut the lead to either three or two points and they could not get a shot to fall. Waldron came up with the key rebound, and the Tigers were quickly running out of time. The very good guards and ball handling of the Bulldogs were able to run the clock, and the game ended with a final score of 49-40. It is interesting to note that the game was still within reach for Charleston with 58 seconds remaining. The Tigers trailed by just five points, but Waldron has a championship pedigree of their own, and they closed out the game the way good teams do. It was a great effort by both schools, and it was how championship games should be played. The fans from both communities were treated to a game of great high school basketball, and I felt privileged to witness it.
Immediately after the game, the Bulldogs stormed the court and celebrated the championship win in front of their home fans. Charleston was presented with the district tournament runner-up trophy. Tigers fans can be very proud of this team for not only what they have accomplished on the floor, but in the way they have conducted themselves and have represented the Charleston community in both victory and defeat. The Tigers, and their coach, B.J. Ross, are class acts, and they will do very well in the regional tournament.
After the runner-up presentation, the Waldron Bulldogs were presented the championship trophy for the district tournament win. The Bulldogs trophy case must be getting a little crowded as regular season and district tournament championships are becoming commonplace under their coach, Josh Brown. Photos were taken of both teams, and the Bulldogs moved to the home end of the court to cut the nets down in championship tradition.
Each player cut a portion of the net down and the final two strands were cut by the Waldron coaches. It was a memorable night for Waldron fans, and it was great to see kids from both teams doing great things.
I spoke with an emotional Waldron coach, Josh Brown, after the cutting of the nets. I shared with Coach Brown how I thought his Bulldogs were a threat to play deep into the state tournament, perhaps the final four of Class 3A. Coach Brown said, “To even be in that conversation is something that these guys have earned. They have played their butts off, and have overcome a lot of adversity during the year. I have said it earlier, we are probably the best-kept secret because everyone thought Waldron….when you look on all of the message boards and read them saying that they (Waldron) are going to finish third, finish fourth, to this team or that team…and they (Waldron) showed up every day and had 20 wins, a conference championship, and now a conference tournament championship. Beating Charleston isn’t easy. Doing it twice in one year is something these guys will always remember.”
Waldron is playing great basketball at the right time of the year. This is very impressive after the success of last year’s team and now a new team that may be playing better at this point in post-season play than last year’s. Coach Brown said, “We want to be playing our best basketball right now. So, they won a lot of games in the ninth grade, and last year they were part of a team that won 23 games, so their goal was to win more games this year. And they came in and worked their tails off and they have done a really good job. They have kept this program rolling.”
Coach Brown is building a great basketball program at Waldron. The success of the Bulldogs over the past two season has been truly impressive. Coach Brown responded to this by saying, “At 4:45 today there were people walking in. Because they wanted the best seat in the house. This atmosphere is so special. Our parents, our student section, our cheerleaders, if it wasn’t a tournament, it would be our band…I mean, our community support is just awesome. I told our guys before the game that had it been a non-COVID year, this place, you wouldn’t have been able to find a seat. But even with the limited seating, it got really loud in here. So, it was a lot of fun.”
With the championship win, Waldron will advance to next week’s regional tournament as a number one seed and will play the four seed Green Forrest Tigers. Coach Brown has already studied the Tigers on film, having originally thought they would not play in the district tournament due to the week’s snowy conditions. So, Waldron has completed their regional first round film study, and in the words of Coach Brown, “now we just have to go to work.”
Charleston coach B.J. Ross told me after the game that he was very proud of his players ad congratulated Waldron on their big win. Coach Ross commented, “I thought we played extremely hard and battled all night. Hats off to Waldron for playing a good game. Waldron hit some shots that we were ok with them shooting. That’s just basketball. Sometimes it’s just not your night. I wouldn’t trade one single player of mine for anyone. They gave me their best effort and represented the Tiger nation with pride. We now have to turn our focus to Elkins in the regional tournament.’
As a two-seed in the regional, Charleston will play the three-seed Elkins Elks. The two programs are familiar with each other due to being conference teams a year ago. It should be a great match-up for the chance to qualify for the state tournament.
Fans from both schools can visit Facebook at Charleston Tigers Sports for additional photos of the championship game. All photos are free for viewing and downloading.
Congratulations to Waldron and Charleston for finishing the year as conference champions and runner-ups. Thanks to the great players, coaches, and fans for an outstanding conference season while having to dodge the unpredictability of the year of COVID restrictions and cancellations. It was a great job by all concerned, and for me, I can’t wait to see what happens in the regional tournament!