After a short vacation, the Nooga Nine has returned, and it looks quite a bit different than it did three weeks ago. Despite a few setbacks, the Owls still hold on to the No. 1 spot, while Central made a huge leap to No. 2. East Hamilton also makes its first appearance in the rankings this season after knocking off No. 4 McCallie on Tuesday.

1. Ooltewah (11-4)

The Owls suffered a rough stretch to close out the year, losing three of its final four games of 2012, but Ooltewah bounced back Tuesday with a 66-50 win over District 5-AAA opponent Soddy-Daisy. The Owls, who suffered losses to No. 4 McCallie and No. 6 Notre Dame at the Best of Preps Tournament, return to action Thursday at Hardin Valley.

2. Central (10-3)

What was considered an upset at the time, the Pounders’ 60-48 win over No. 3 Howard on Dec. 14 is starting to look less and less like one. Central, which hasn’t lost in nearly a month, has strung together six straight wins since knocking off the Hustlin’ Tigers, including a tournament championship at the Hixson Wildcat Christmas Classic over the break. The Pounders resume their District 6-AA schedule Friday against East Ridge.

3. Howard (10-3)

The Hustlin’ Tigers’ three-game losing streak seems to be in the past. They’re presently in the midst of another streak, and a much more positive one. Howard won its fourth straight with Tuesday’s 25-point victory over No. 5 Baylor, which came four days after the Tigers took down rival Brainerd for the second time this season. They resume District 6-AA play Friday when they host rival Tyner. 

4. McCallie (7-6)

The Blue Tornado turned some heads with its Best of Preps Tournament championship to conclude 2012, but the new year hasn’t been near as kind. McCallie suffered a 60-49 loss to Division II-AA East/Middle Region foe Father Ryan last Friday, and fell at East Hamilton 55-48 on Tuesday. The Blue Tornado returns to action this weekend with a pair of region games at Battle Ground Academy and Pope John Paul II. 

5. Baylor (8-4)

The Red Raiders started the new year out by capturing its first Division II-AA East/Middle Region win of the season, knocking off Battle Ground Academy 48-43 last Friday, but they’ve since come back down to Earth after being stung by Howard on Tuesday. After taking down the No. 3 Hustlin’ Tigers on Dec. 22, Howard delivered a 25-point blowout win over Baylor on Tuesday. The Red Raiders return to action Friday at Father Ryan. 

6. Tyner (8-4)

Tyner took home the championship from the South Pittsburg Christmas Tournament over the break by crusing to lopsided victories over Sequatchie County, North Sand Mountain (Ala.) and South Pittsburg. The Rams resume District 6-AA play Friday when they play at No. 3 Howard, who they lost to 64-47 on Dec. 7. 

7. Notre Dame (11-6)

The Fighting Irish fell to Sequatchie County on Tuesday, dropping Notre Dame to 1-2 in District 7-AA competition. The Irish will have plenty of chances to get back towards the top of the standings, though, as it takes on Signal Mountain, Grundy County and Bledsoe County in a seven-day span starting Friday. 

8. East Hamilton (9-3)

Twice the Hurricanes overcame sizable runs by their opponents in Tuesday’s 55-48 win over McCallie. For head coach Michael Stone, it’s a sign of his team’s maturity. East Hamilton, which started the season 3-4, has since won five straight, and appears determined to make a run in District 6-AA. The ‘Canes return to action Thursday at Red Bank.

9. Cleveland (10-6)

The Blue Raiders haven’t been the same since their 64-62 loss to No. 1 Ooltewah in mid-December. At least their record hasn’t. Cleveland, which started the season 6-0, is just 4-6 in its last 10, though the Blue Raiders did defeat District 5-AAA foe Walker Valley 71-61 on Tuesday. They travel to Rhea County on Friday.