Year in and year out, few things in sports are this wide open, outside of maybe Stephen A. Smith’s mouth.

But when it comes to the District 18-4A boys’ basketball race, it’s always a genuine battle royale. The coaches in this district know to expect a down-to-the-wire tussle every night out, and this year it may be more that way than ever.

All six teams in the district — Lorena, La Vega, Gatesville, Robinson, China Spring and 16th-ranked and defending champion Connally — boast .500 records or better as league play prepares to tip off on Friday. The coaches understand what a fight they’re in for over the next five weeks, and any player with past varsity experience gets it, too.

“If they don’t (understand), they’re not in the program,” China Spring coach David Ellis said. “That’s something that we preach to them, preparing for district. It’s why we front-loaded our schedule, it’s why Quinton (Snell) does it every year at Connally, it’s why La Vega played in a 6A tournament, it’s why Lorena went up and played some Dallas teams.

“The coaches in our district, we talk about how competitive it is. I think it’s one of the hidden gems in the state.”

Connally’s Snell has been able to seize his share of golden basketball trophies awarded to the district champion over the years, and his Cadets have reached the regional tournament the past two seasons. But he stresses that it’s a rigorous challenge every year even to finish in the top four and grab one of 18-4A’s coveted playoff spots.

“No doubt about it, I’ve told the coaches in our district that I wish all six of us could make the playoffs,” Snell said. “It’s going to be super-challenging this year. … And I think because of how competitive our district is, it gives us a really good chance to advance at least a couple of rounds in the playoffs. And that’s no disrespect to anyone else. But we’re battle-tested.”

Entering district play, Connally (12-7) wears the target as the team to beat, given its last couple of seasons. However, the Cadets feature a different look than the past couple of years following the graduation of its Super Centex backcourt Trajan Snell and Sidney Hadden. Quinton Snell said that this year’s team also needed some time to find its sea legs, so to speak, since 10 of his 13 players were on Connally’s football team that went two rounds deep in the playoffs.

Matt Jackson’s Lorena (17-4) squad won its first eight games of the season, and has been able to withstand some injuries over the course of a sizzling non-district run. The Leopards can use 6-foot-6 senior Bryan Ash to coax mismatches.

La Vega (8-5) has played fewer games than its colleagues, thanks to the Pirates’ state championship run in football. But the Pirates seem to have settled into a groove as district play dawns, and are coming off an impressive 68-47 road win over Mexia on Tuesday.

China Spring

China Spring senior guard Antwan Stephens fuels a potent Cougar backcourt that should make his team tough to beat in 18-4A play.

Meanwhile, China Spring (11-11), Gatesville (12-8) and Robinson (9-9) can’t be discounted as title contenders either.

“You look around the state, and Silsbee won a game over Hamshire-Fannett by almost 100 points (Tuesday), like 93 points,” China Spring’s Ellis said. “We don’t have those kinds of games. There’s not one game in our district that’s a lay-down game. Not one.”

Friday’s opening night of action will feature Connally hosting La Vega, Robinson traveling to Lorena, and Gatesville welcoming in China Spring.

Down Under meets Lone Star State

You want to teach a high school kid about world history, foreign relations, geography? Here’s an idea — bring the world to his front door.

Several Central Texas basketball teams have played non-district games against visiting high school club teams from Australia this season. For Connally’s Quinton Snell, it marked his sixth straight year to do so, and said it’s become a valuable experience all the way around.

“What we’ve done, we’ve played the same organization every year, but for whatever reasons they couldn’t make the trip this year,” Snell said. “So we ended up getting another team out of Melbourne. For us, there’s always a cultural piece, as the (visiting) players stay with people in our community. And they’ve gotten a chance to hang out with students from our school, take pictures, everything.”

Connally zipped past that Melbourne Heat team, 100-30, but the game was only part of the proceedings. The teams swapped T-shirts and posed for photos with one another, and the Cadets had barbecue and Blue Bell ice cream on hand for their overseas visitors.

“There’s a togetherness that you like to see,” Snell said. “Your kids get to see that even though these kids are from another country, another continent, they’re not any different from you. They may just speak a little differently.”

China Spring’s David Ellis had a similar experience this season when School Sport Australia, a team out of Victoria, Australia, contacted him about playing the Cougars on their international tour. Ellis said that he had a January open date that he was having a hard time filling back in September when he was still finalizing the program’s schedule. So when School Sport’s tour coordinator emailed him about coming to China Spring, he was intrigued.

Ellis said he was impressed with School Sport, which had three players 6-foot-5 or bigger. The game was close for a half before China Spring went on a 17-0 third-quarter run that fueled a 71-44 win. But beyond the game, the experience was eye-opening, Ellis said.

“It was just a great experience for our guys to see that basketball is a global game,” he said. “And we had a great crowd here, they really filled up the gym to support the game, which was nice.”

Ellis said that he tried to roll out the red carpet for the School Sport squad, including passing along gifts of Mars candy bars, Dr Peppers, and cookies favored by George W. Bush, along with a write-up explaining Bush’s connection to Central Texas.

“We had a lot of fun with it,” the China Spring coach said.

Mexia also played a touring Australia team earlier this month, the Aussie Basketball Travelers. The Blackcats won that game, 61-49.

La Vega to hold renaming ceremony

LaVega Willie Williams (copy)

Former La Vega head coach Willie Williams will see his old stadium renamed in his honor on Tuesday.

La Vega ISD will honor a coaching legend on Tuesday.

It will hold a renaming ceremony for the soon-to-be-christened Willie Williams Football Stadium and Athletic Complex at 5:40 p.m. Williams, a La Vega alumnus, coached the Pirates to a 214-109-2 overall record and a 2015 state championship before retiring from the sideline in January 2018. He remains on staff as the school’s athletic director.

La Vega will also rename its primary school the Phil Bancale Campus, after its longtime school board member of more than 40 years. That ceremony will precede the one for Williams, at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the primary school.

Smoltz highlights coaches convention

The baseball caps are coming! The baseball caps are coming!

It’s that time of year again, when the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association holds its annual convention in Waco. This year’s three-day gathering will begin Thursday at the Waco Convention Center.

It will feature a variety of panels and guest speakers, most notably Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, who will speak at the THSBCA’s banquet at 6:15 p.m. Friday. Smoltz is the only pitcher in Major League history to tally both 200 wins and 150 saves.

The THSBCA is the largest association of high school baseball coaches in the country, with more than 3,200 members.

Hillsboro in market for football coach

Hillsboro ISD is in the hunt for a new athletic director and head football coach, having posted that opening on its website in December.

Joey Moss spent four years as Hillsboro’s head coach, recording a 14-29 overall record with three playoff appearances. Prior to that, he spent six years as a Hillsboro defensive assistant, first coaching defensive linemen and then taking over as defensive coordinator.

Chilton not chilling, it’s sizzling

Keep an eye out for the Chilton Pirates boys basketball team, sailing swiftly to a gym near you.

Chilton has put together a breakthrough season, as it improved to 9-6 overall and 4-0 in District 17-2A after a 53-41 win over Bosqueville on Tuesday. The Pirates are tied with Crawford for the district lead, a game ahead of 3-1 Bosqueville.

Forward De’auntre Davis has been balling for the Pirates, averaging 19 points and 15 rebounds per game on the year. The 6-foot-6 junior has elevated his play even higher in district action, with averages of 23.8 points and 17.3 rebounds.

Five of Chilton’s six losses have come to higher-classification foes.

Super Centex on tap for weekend

The Tribune-Herald will publish its 34th annual Super Centex Six-Man Football Team on Saturday, followed by the release of the 64th annual Super Centex Football Team on Sunday.

The Trib will also publish the area all-district teams on those respective days.

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