Jeff Jefferson has been battling a cold this week. He has managed to break his fever, though he is still fighting through a lingering cough.
The best prescription Jefferson can imagine would be two more victories for his La Vega High School girls basketball team. Forget taking a cold medicine. A state title would be much better.
La Vega (32-2) will make its third straight appearance in the UIL state basketball tournament when it faces off against Abilene Wylie (30-5) at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
The Lady Pirates will be angling to add another state championship trophy to the one they gathered in their unbeaten season of 2014.
Despite their championship experience, reaching this stage was not a foregone conclusion for the Lady Pirates entering the 2015-16 season. They had to find a way to replace the production of departing senior Erin DeGrate, a Louisville signee and last year’s Super Centex Player of the Year.
They also lost head coach Amy Gillum, an effervescent La Vega graduate whose positive energy permeated the team’s previous playoff runs. Gillum took a job at Crowley during the offseason.
Fortunately, La Vega had a capable coach to take over in Jefferson, Gillum’s longtime assistant who also served as head coach of the team during a successful stint in the 1990s.
But before he could even fill out the scorebook for the first game of the year, Jefferson had to endure even more losses. Senior Kobi Gill, a multiyear starter in the backcourt and one of the team’s best defensive pests, tore her ACL before the season and was ruled out for the year. La Vega also suffered another injury to junior guard Haley Howard, who was slated to be a key role player.
“Everything on paper looked good, we knew we had some good starters coming back,” Jefferson said. “But the injuries definitely threw me for a loop. It kind of forced me to look to some of the younger players, some kids who probably would have played on JV, I had to bump up.”
One player who was automatically coming up from last year’s junior varsity team was senior guard Odision Miles.
She transferred to La Vega from Midway before the 2014-15 season, but had to play a year on the JV squad because of UIL transfer stipulations.
Miles has adeptly stepped into the role of floor general, which had a dual benefit. Not only has she performed brilliantly in setting up the offense and delivering the ball where it needs to go, but her presence also has allowed senior star Calveion “Juicy” Landrum to slide over to off guard, where she can focus more on scoring.
“She’s helped me a lot,” said the soft-spoken Landrum, who is averaging 25.8 points per game in the playoffs. “She’s really a point guard, so I don’t have to overwork myself throughout the game.”
Miles feels perfectly at home with the ball in her hand, leading the team. She has known Landrum since both were in elementary school, and she has loved playing with a lights-out scorer who also doubles as her “best friend,” she said.
“I’m just the type that will come out and lead the team every night, get the ball where it needs to go,” Miles said. “Take the pressure off Juicy so that she can create or give her the ball where she’s comfortable. . . . When I get it to her, it’s two points. Off the top, absolutely.”
In the post, sophomore Ta’Naiya Norwood has helped offset DeGrate’s departure by improving her game tenfold in her second varsity season. Norwood averages 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds, and has an increasingly reliable step-out jumper to 10 or 12 feet.
“Ta’Naiya has grown up and matured a lot this year,” Jefferson said. “She’s carried us for stretches. She quietly will go out and score 18 or 19 points, and then at the end of the game when you look at the book, you’re like, ‘She had 19?’ She’s still raw and she’s learning, but she plays hard and plays fast.”
La Vega wants to push the pace against just about everyone it plays. The Lady Pirates have employed more defensive trapping and backcourt presses this season than in recent years.
Landrum in particular excels as something of a passing lane-busting rover on defense.
Not only does the 5-foot-10 guard average 3.9 steals per game, but she sneakily tracks down opponents from behind for blocks, rejecting 1.8 shots per game.
Wylie is no stranger to La Vega, as the Lady Pirates defeated the Lady Bulldogs, 53-44, to win the prestigious Whataburger Tournament earlier this season.
Jefferson acknowledges the coaching axiom that suggests it’s never easy to beat a team twice. But he also thinks that La Vega’s previous win should strengthen his team’s resolve.
“The way I look at it, we know them, we’ve studied their weaknesses,” Jefferson said. “It’s not a guarantee you’re going to beat them again, but you know you can. It’s kind of like in district — when you beat a team once, you expect to do it again the second time around.”
A thin line separates confidence and cockiness, and La Vega’s players seem to be setting up on the right side of that line. They know they can win, but they also completely understand that it won’t come without a lot of work.
“We can’t be thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to win! We’re going to win state!’ We can’t think that way,” Landrum said. “One game at a time. Win the first, then win the second.”
Winning the second on Saturday would give La Vega another state title, providing the perfect capper to Landrum’s career before she whisks across town to play for the Baylor Lady Bears.
When the bus ride grows quiet — which isn’t often, as the Lady Pirates are a team that prefers to sing and crack jokes for mile after mile — she can’t help but daydream about that ending.
Instinctively, she’ll look down at her fingers and smile.
“I always dreamed of having two rings,” Landrum said.
“It would be a great feeling to win state the last year of high school, with a team like this,” Miles said. “It would be amazing to win with my best friend.”