Quinton Snell knows that Region III-4A is a meat grinder. He’s coached in it long enough, and he has the scars to prove it. Winning three playoff games to reach the regional tournament in these parts? It’s a challenge every year.

But before the season, Connally’s longtime boys’ basketball coach looked at his roster and thought to himself, “We can get to Huntsville.” So he scheduled accordingly.

Which is to say he put his team through the meat grinder from the start.

“Because I had that belief early in the year, I felt like I scheduled tough to see if we were capable and ready to handle the rigors of 17-4A and even our own region once we got to the playoffs,” Snell said. “And I’m not saying that the scheduling helped, but I don’t think it hurt.”

It seems to have worked out just fine. The Cadets, at 26-12, may have more losses than some teams still left in the UIL playoffs. But they’re battle-tested and no worse for wear, having faced off against the likes of Bryan, Cleburne and Class 5A’s No. 1-ranked University in the nondistrict portion of their season.

Now, they’re Huntsville-bound. Ten years after Snell first took a Connally team to the regional tournament, they’re headed back again.

Truthfully, beefing up the schedule wasn’t a hard sell for the Cadets. The players looked around at the talent on hand – including the past two Super Centex newcomers of the year in guards Sidney Hadden and Trajan Snell – and realized that their moment was now.

“Before the year even started we had set out a goal to reach Huntsville,” senior guard Kameron Brown said. “That was our overall initial goal for the year. That was what we were planning on, what we were looking for every day in practice. That was what we hung over our heads.”

Connally’s well-respected ROTC program is regimented; the Cadet basketball team, by contrast, is a free-flowing amoeba. They’re able to attack teams in a variety of different ways.

While Connally doesn’t have a 6-foot-7 Alico Tower in can dump the ball into in the post, its big men, like Maalik Cooper and Alvin Cleveland Jr., are adept at sliding off ball screens and scoring in traffic.

The Cadets also can beat teams with the 3-ball, led by junior sharpshooter Hadden, or off the dribble. Trajan Snell has developed into a superior ballhandler and passer in his third varsity season, and is coming off a career-high 33-point effort in Connally’s 88-70 win over Athens on Tuesday night.

“You kind of want to have a system built in from your junior high on up,” Quinton Snell said. “Sometimes those dudes develop differently. So you have to look at your personnel, look at their strength, and you as a coach have to find ways to get them use their strength in the right way. … I’ve always been a believer that really good teams can play different ways.”

At their best, the Cadets also display an unseflish willingness to snap the ball around, to make the extra pass. That starts with that junior point guard Trajan Snell, the coach’s son who remembers people telling him to shoot the ball more even in his earliest basketball games. But he always loved to pass – “I guess it just comes natural,” he said.

Being the coach’s son, Trajan has heard it all. Some fans and critics have made catcalls of preferential treatment. Both father and son understand it comes with the territory, but that doesn’t make it easy.

“It really motivates me, to be honest, because it just builds a more distinct fire inside of me,” Trajan Snell said. “More reason to prove people wrong. To show them that I’m not just on the court because he’s the coach.”

Quinton Snell said that even as Trajan has proven himself as a player, he’s still had to overcome the coach’s kid stigma.

“He’s had to fight through it, being a coach’s kid, the only reason you’re this is because your dad is the coach,” the coach said. “I think he’s put in the work and I think he’s a pretty good player. He’s pretty good. He got it this year.

“He didn’t have one of his best games against one of our district opponents and somebody in the bleachers said, ‘You’re only out there because of your dad!’ He looked and he was like, ‘OK,’ and then he went to work. From that game, he’s been on fire.”

That flame has engulfed the entire Cadet team, which has dispatched Mexia, Navasota and Athens on the way to Huntsville. Next up – oh, just Class 4A’s seventh-ranked Houston Yates, which is averaging 105.7 points per game in the playoffs.

“We really have no time for mess-ups or mistakes. It’s all on the line,” Connally senior forward Devin Miles said. “Either make it or fake it. Just trying to get there.”

As he watched film of Yates’ most recent win on Wednesday afternoon, Quinton Snell recognized the immense task in front of the Cadets. But he has not wavered from the belief in his team, as the target has now changed from reaching Huntsville to reaching San Antonio, the site of the state tournament.

“We got 10 or 12 losses, and I think one or two losses that really hurt me a little bit,” Snell said. “But I felt like we’ve lost to some quality teams. A lot of them are probably still playing right now.

“With that being said, the goal, the process, them being able to reach it, they can look back and say, ‘This is what we had to do to get to this point.’ But I would really like to take the next step.”

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