Michael Rivers considers himself blessed.
The Central High School girls basketball coach told the media gathered on Wednesday at the Tuscaloosa Career & Technology Academy he has prayed and all he's asked is for a few of his girls to be able to go to college, even if that meant not winning a state championship.
"You know what happened, I was getting two or three girls into college and I was losing state championships," Rivers said. "So the last time I said 'Lord, I need to make another prayer. I want to win one and still get them into college.'"
Rivers got the answer he was hoping for.
The Falcons, after losses in the 2016 and 2018 Class 5A state championship game, finally brought home a title last season.
The blessings keep coming for Rivers as the 2019-20 season gets started Thursday. The Falcons welcome three freshmen to the team, all 6-foot or taller, including 6-foot-4 Kylera Warren.
"I'm ecstatic," Rivers said. "I can't tell you how I feel. I've never had young ladies that are six feet. This year I've got three."
Add to the mix first-team All-State player Quintasia Leatherwood, second-team All-State player Sakyia White and All-State honorable mention player Mackenzie Mahone back on the team this season, and Central is poised for another state title run.
It will be a little tougher," Central junior Aja Wiltshire said of repeating. "It's going to put a target on our back. It's going to make everybody want to beat us. We are not going to back down because we always step up with the competition."
The Lady Falcons host Hale County on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.
Willie Moore didn't hesitate when asked about the 2019-20 Falcons team and his expectations in area play.
"Central High School is going to be in the mix," he said. "I like our guys one through 11."
Moore is in his first year with the Falcons and with eight seniors on the team he's confident this season will be competitive and entertaining.
"We are bringing some excitement back to Central basketball," Moore said. "They have really bought in to what we have to do. We have a theme, dominate the day. If we dominate the day we have a chance to win.
"We are going to play a great, fun brand of basketball. We want to defend people, we want to be high energy and I think these guys are really buying into what we are doing."
Moore said the Falcons will play an up-tempo style with a focus on perimeter shooting, but will also take advantage of 6-foot-8 senior Tabyas Jones in the post.
"He is going to be an integral part of our offense," Moore said. "But we have some guys that can shoot it and we have guys that can get up and down the court. We are going to play under control and get up-tempo and at the same time we want to throw it in the post and put guys in position to be successful.
Central opens the season at home against Greene County on Nov. 11.
Paul Bryant boys
Jamel King has been fortunate to be part of a state championship team. He was a freshman when the Stampede captured the school's first state title in 2016.
The Stampede went back to the Class 6A title game his sophomore year but lost. As a junior Bryant failed to reach the Final Four, falling in the regionals.
He wants to get back to that title game this season, but the team is going to have to take a different path.
"This team is going to be a lot different," King said. "We have a lot of talent but we have a lot of small guys. We are going to play some games where we are going to be smaller, but I think we can win.
The Stampede will be tested, but Bryant coach Shon Peck-Love said he's prepared for the challenges ahead.
"We are going to play a different style of basketball," Peck-Love said. "You may come into the gym and see us miss 20 (3-pointers) but then you may come in the next night and see us hit 20. It's going to have to be one of those things where we learn on the fly and take the good with the bad as a shooting team. We are going to have bad nights but we will have to find ways to win."
Peck-Love is counting on experienced players like King to step up and lead the way, but he's also hoping for others to follow.
"Jamel is a great player and everybody in the state knows that, so he's going to be keyed in on a lot of nights," he said. "We are going to have to have other players step up and contribute. We have a great deal of new guys coming up from our junior varsity and think they've had the luxury of seeing some older guys establish how to win and going through the process."
Bryant begins the season Thursday at home against Greene County.
Two years ago the Jaguars had just five wins to go with 22 losses. Last season the team went 11-16 and was second in the area.
Expectations are high for the 2019-20 Northridge team with first-year coach Jay Carnley.
"This year we are going to build off that," Carnley said. "We want to win the area this year, that is the expectation this year first and foremost. We want to win the area tournament and move on and see how things go going into February and March."
There are five seniors and seven underclassmen on the roster. Carnley said this year's team has a lot of speed, which fits in nicely with his style of play.
"With Emma (Wilkin), Haven (Brooks) and our other bigs, the biggest thing we are working on right now is running the floor with them," Carnley said. "We are going to get out and run. Our bigs are going to beat the guards down the floor every time and they are going to be in position to make plays."
Wilkin, a senior, said the confidence is high for the Jaguars with the new style of play and after a nice summer of preparation.
"I'm really confident this year," she said. "We have a lot of younger girls who know the game and are very good. We've done a lot more preparation this year than we've done in the past…we've been really successful this summer and beaten teams we've never beat before, so I think the preparation is really going to pay off this year."
Northridge's first game is at home on Nov. 13 vs. Bibb County.
It was late in the season when the Jaguars figured out they could be competitive and win games. It was a 'Eureka' moment, one the Jaguars hope to carry over to this season.
"It was like the lightbulb hit us last year after we beat Hillcrest," said Jaguar player Myles Bailey. "After that it was like, 'we got this.'" Coming into this season we know where our mind is and we are just trying to get where we want to be and that's state champs."
The Jaguars return six seniors, but not a lot of height. So head coach Bob Brantley said Northridge will rely on speed this season.
"Our brand of basketball is going to be up-tempo," Brantley said. "We are going to shoot the ball a lot and we are going to press from beginning to end. It's just a high energy team."
Northridge won the regular-season game with Hillcrest but fell to the Patriots in the area tournament last year, failing to reach the postseason.
"I believe this is the toughest area in 6A basketball," Brantley said. "The teams that come out of this area usually go a long way.
Northridge opens the season Nov. 12 on the road against Homewood.
Reach Edwin Stanton at email@example.com, 205-722-0226 or via Twitter, @edwinstantonu2