They are two of the highest-ranked 2-A girls basketball teams in the state, and 1-2 in the WLOS/WNC Basketball Poll.
Both entered play Tuesday night at 18-1 overall and 7-0 in their conferences, and each team’s only loss came against the other.
Which makes you wonder if Smoky Mountain and Mountain Heritage are headed for a playoff showdown, a rubber match to decide who gets to advance toward a state title run and who is sent home as a sad end to their season.
There are a lot of similarities between the two teams in addition to both having the word Mountain in their names.
There is a lot of winning tradition in Burnsville and Sylva, and in the past few years it’s gotten even better.
Coach Susie Shelton, a former standout at Mountain Heritage who came back home to coach and has been in charge of the program since 1999, has built a dynasty that is 161-16 over the past six seasons, and the Cougars have won six consecutive Western Highlands Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
Heather Klipa is in just her second season with the Mustangs, but the former player at Western Carolina has continued a recent run of dominating play that goes back to the era of legendary coach Cindi Simmons, who was 514-280 from 1988-2013.
Klipa took over last season for Eric Toedtman, who was 61-22 in two seasons with the Mustangs. Klipa is 45-4 in her brief stint and hasn’t lost a conference game (18 straight) since taking over.
Dating back to before Klipa took over, Smoky Mountain has won 29 straight regular-season league games in two conferences, the Western North Carolina Athletic and this year’s Mountain Six.
The two teams played twice in an eight-day span in early January – Smoky Mountain, ranked 6th in the state, took a 69-63 decision at home, and No. 4 Mountain Heritage romped 54-32 in Burnsville.
Each team features strong senior leadership and an emphasis on defense as they roll through their WNC opponents this season.
“We would love another opportunity to play them this season,” said Klipa, a young coach who turns 30 next week.
“I have a lot of respect for coach Shelton and the way she has run her program over the years. She’s someone I’ve looked at and said, ‘How can sustain our program like she has?’
“They are fun to watch and fun to play against, and it would be exciting to play them again.”
“I think we are two very competitive teams that are used to winning,” said Shelton, who went on to a Hall of Fame career at Mars Hill and played one year in the WNBA before coming back home.
“They have some real good players and so do we. We are similar in a lot of ways, love to play aggressive man-to-man. You never know – we may play them again.”
Klipa said the key to her team is great leadership, led by four senior captains – Taylor Douthit, Aaliyah McCollum, Kaitlyn Putnam and Shay Tisho.
Tisho leads a balanced scoring attack with 12.7 ppg, with junior Shea Sutton adding nine points a game.
“We have an awesome group of seniors, who give us great leadership, hold everyone accountable and help set high expectations,” Klipa said.
McCollum scored 857 points in her first two seasons plus six games last year before suffering torn ligaments in both knees.
After being out for 13 months, she has returned for the last five games.
“It definitely helps us to add another offensive player like Aaliyah who is so smart on the court,” said Klipa. “She’s added so much to us, and we’re trying to be patient and give her time to get all the way back and get comfortable again.”
Shelton is also getting great play from her seniors, including leading scorer Ciera Chandler (13.8 points per game) and Hali King (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rebounds pg).
“A big key for us has been our defense. We’ve played really well and been able to limit teams below their average,” said Shelton.
“We have so much depth that we are usually going 10 deep, and by the third or fourth quarter we’ve been wearing people down.”
The last WNC team to win a state championship was Simmons’ 2007 Smoky Mountain squad, and Shelton admits that’s a goal for her team.
“When I played here we had some success, and when I came back it was a matter of rebuilding. It took us awhile and it was a battle, but I’m really proud of where we are at and how we’ve been able to maintain some success,” Shelton said.
“Right now we want to win the conference. A state title is in the back of everyone’s mind, but it’s way too early to be talking about that.”