Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Too early for a big basketball weekend?

Not in Albany.

Not here, where high school hoops rule and where packed gyms and hopes of state titles come with the first cool breeze of winter.

It will be packed tonight at Westover, where one of the top games in the state will take place between coach Dallis Smith's Herald No. 2 Westover's No. 5 state-ranked Patriots and coach Donald Poole's Herald No. 4 Dougherty's No. 7 state-ranked Trojans.

Dougherty made it to the Elite Eight a year ago before losing a tough game to LaGrange, which went on to play for the Class AAA state title.

Westover, the defending Region 1-AAA champ, has been to the Final Four the past two seasons -- including the state title game in 2008 -- and despite losing four starters from a team that gave state champ Columbia all it wanted before losing in Macon, the Patriots believe they will make another run in the playoffs.

That's months from now. For now, the big game is tonight.

There's enough heat in tonight's showdown to take the chill out of the air and remind everyone in Southwest Georgia that basketball season has not only arrived, but is here in full force.

"It's a big game, because it's a region game, and it's Dougherty,'' Smith said Thursday. "Every time you play anybody in the city, it's a big game. This is the kind of game you don't have to give a speech to get the kids to get up.''

Both teams are 1-0 in Region 1-AAA, which saw Albany's three AAA teams finish 1-2-3 a year ago when Westover outlasted state-ranked Monroe for the title, and Dougherty finished third.

Those three are expected to finish 1-2-3 again, but no one's sure in what order. They will play each other twice and every time they take the court it will be standing-room only.

"I love it when there's a big crowd,'' said Dougherty's Chris Holmes, a senior guard. "It just makes you play harder.''

There's no worry about Dougherty playing hard. The Trojans run the court five at a time and crash the boards as if the rebound had everyone's name on it.

"We're just trying to work hard and get better every week,'' said Poole, who added Thursday that he isn't concerned about the state rankings. "That really doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you are 2-0 or 0-2. When you are playing them it is a big game. Folks at both schools care about it. Folks in the community care about it. It's one of the biggest games every year.''

Westover (3-2) may be ranked No. 2 in The Herald's Top 5 poll, and Dougherty (2-0) is ranked No. 4, but the fact both teams are ranked in the Top 10 in the state for the first time in years might add to the discussion around Georgia, but anytime two city teams meet in basketball it's an instant classic.

"The rankings don't mean anything,'' said Dougherty senior and Herald Super 6er McArthur Gaines, who helped lead Dougherty in the playoffs last year. "A ranked team can beat an unranked team, so that doesn't mean anything. This is a great game because it's a rivalry game.''

The kids at Westover feel the same way.

"Rankings are rankings,'' Westover senior center Joseph Harrell said. "That doesn't change anything. It will be the same intensity it always is. Both of us are great teams. They're a cross-town rival and that's what makes this game what it is.''

Holmes put it succinctly.

"It's special,'' he said. "It's very special. It's a city rivalry.'

'

The only difference is that this year the game comes earlier than usual. The region games usually don't begin until January, but both teams opened Region 1-AAA with impressive victories on Tuesday night as Dougherty beat Cairo, 69-52, and Westover beat Worth County, 63-48.

"The region games are big games, but we usually don't play them this early,'' Smith said. "So it's a very important game. Dougherty has been playing well, and Dougherty will be ready. I know Poole will have them ready.''

Westover has a four-game winning streak, winning both meetings over the past two years, but when Dougherty last beat the Patriots, 69-65, on Feb.15, 2008 it was for the Region 1-AAA title.

Smith may have a big advantage because the first game between the two schools is being played at Westover, where tradition and history go a long way to define the basketball program that legendary coach Willie Boston put on the map decades ago.

"They're coming into the Boston Garden,'' said Dequan Green, a junior who is emerging as a star at Westover. "This is our gym and there's a lot of tradition here. We know we have to be ready. We have to play Westover basketball.''

The Westover-Dougherty girls game begins at 7 tonight, so get there early, because Westover looks like one of the top teams in Georgia and Dougherty appears to be ready to not only make the playoffs this year but possibly make a run of its own.

The Herald No. 1-ranked Westover Lady Patriots are off to a torrid 7-0 start and Herald N. 5 Dougherty comes in with a 2-1 record, losing only to Class AAAAA Colquitt County.

Both games tonight will be worth the price of admission, but then again this is Albany, where all the city rivalry games take on a flavor all their own.

It's a tough weekend for Westover, which turns right around and plays at Albany High on Saturday night in a non-region showcase that will be another early test. The Lady Pats won by 10 points the first time in the girls game, 60-50, but the boys had it tougher, winning by just a point, 60-59 -- making for an exciting rematch.

But the Patriots won't have a chance to look ahead. Dougherty is coming across the river tonight.

"We know the intensity in this game will be up there and the energy will be up there,'' Smith said. "Dougherty is coming in with a lot of energy. We have to be ready.''