When you’re in elementary school, Meet the Teacher Night excites like few others. Who cares about the unknown? So much promise awaits.
When you’re in high school, Meet the New Coach Day causes fingernail-chewing, hair-pulling stress.
“It was scary, because you know you have something to prove again, when a coach comes in,” said Robinson guard Shelby Lashombe, recalling the day she first met new head coach Keith Smith prior to the 2017-18 season. “If you’ve had a coach forever, you know what they expect you to do. So when he came in, it was like, all right, everybody has something to prove.”
Both coach and players alike acknowledge that there was a bit of a feeling-out period in Robinson. It’s not that they butted heads, but obviously there’s always a learning curve involved. And when you’re trying to get to know each other and discover strengths and weaknesses on the fly, all the while undergoing a schedule in one of the more competitive 4A districts around, it’s a challenge. Like trying-to-juggle-six-basketballs-at-once kind of a challenge.
“We were very young. I thought we had a lot of potential, and that’s one reason I wanted to come to Robinson,” said Smith, who came to the Rockettes following a successful seven-year stint at Longview. “And we did have a lot of potential. Luckily, we stayed together and got through last year, and some good things are happening this year so far.”
Indeed, let’s hit the commercial skip button and jump ahead to live TV. Robinson has bounced out to a 23-6 overall record, a No. 24 state ranking in the TABC poll, and, most importantly, a 5-1 mark in District 18-4A, tied with 23rd-ranked Lorena for the district lead. Those 23 wins are already 19 more than the team produced all of last season, and these Rockettes still have four games remaining on their regular-season docket.
“Our whole thing that we started out with was being humble and hungry,” Smith said. “We’ve been pretty hungry. They’ve really played defense and done the hard things to create some of the better things. I just hope we continue to do that. I do think we have a chance, if we can just pull out a few more out of this district, because if you get out of district, who knows what happens.”
Robinson’s resurgence is remarkable enough on the surface, but it becomes all the more impressive when one considers that the Rockettes are missing one of their chief rocket engines. Sophomore Brooke Aschraft, a proficient athlete who won the district’s Freshman of the Year honor in 2018, broke her leg earlier in the season, and Robinson was forced to carry on without one of their top players on both ends of the court.
“When she went down, it was a big deal,” Lashombe said. “It was kind of like a piece of the puzzle was missing after that. She was a big contributor to us, and when she was out we knew we had other players who could step up also. It was sad, but we knew we were going to be OK.”
Ashcraft’s absence forced the Rockettes to thoroughly embrace a cohesive approach. This is a team that talks on offense, talks on defense, and yes, even engages in a bit of chit-chat on the bus rides home from games.
“Communication, really, (is our strength),” Lashombe said. “If somebody screws up on something, we’re all like, it’s OK, you can fix it like this. We all trust each other. When one of our shooters shoots, like (Shelby) Salter or Dyllan (Doyle), even if they think it’s off we think it’s going in every time.”
Or, as post Madison Crowson put it with a laugh, “We’re like one big happy family here in Robinson, Texas.”
They’re happy, but they’re also grittier and grimier than a movie theater floor. You kind of have to be in 18-4A, which Smith called, as many others have, “the Big 12 of 4A.” Robinson has pulled out several close victories in district play that tested its mettle. The Rockettes beat China Spring by three points, Gatesville by four, and La Vega (the second time around) by eight.
Again, close games are the norm in this district. But for the Rockettes to be on the winning side – especially after a 1-11 district season last year – reveals a formidable fortitude.
“Our coach has stressed mental toughness on us a lot,” Lashombe said. “Even our athletic director (Tommy Allison) and all of them have been pushing that on us. They keep saying, people think Robinson is weak, so we have to prove them wrong. We’ve got to get our minds together and pull through, and hopefully as a team do it together.”
Anybody who would deride Robinson as inferior owns a pamphlet-sized history book. The Rockettes boast one of the most esteemed traditions in girls’ basketball in Central Texas, with two past state championships (1970, 2009), two more trips to the state final, and dozens of playoff appearances. The walls outside the locker room loudly speak to that lineage, as heroes from the past like Suzie Snider, Rachel Hargis and Ashley James look down on passers-by in photograph form.
The Rockettes say they’re not intimidated at all by that history. Rather, they embrace it, and want to do their very best to live up to it.
“This history, we make it and we grow from it, but coming off of last year, we just had a chip on our shoulder,” Salter said. “So our mentality is, yes, we win, but it’s the next game that matters.”
Crowson said that she and her teammates are motivated by the inherent expectation level that surrounds the Robinson program.
“We definitely, one hundred percent, want to reach the expectations that everybody else has for us,” Crowson said. “Everybody is like, oh, we want you to go this far, and we’re going to do it. That’s our mindset.”
Smith would have never left Longview if he didn’t fully believe Robinson could live up to that billing. He said that he’s been pleased with the support he’s received from the community and the administration, including athletic director Tommy Allison, and he also heaped praise on his assistant coaches Allison Crunk and former Robinson star Lindsey Cargill-McLean.
Smith doesn’t mind a little pressure. With a 497-233 career record in a coaching career that has covered stops at Malakoff, Victoria, Round Rock Westwood, Austin Westlake and Longview prior to landing in Robinson, he understands that you need that built-in expectation to create and maintain a winning atmosphere.
“Coaches put pressure on themselves,” Smith said. “I’m fortunate that I have kids right now where they want to create that tradition again. We’ve lost some the last few years, but they don’t want to continue that trend. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to have kids that have a will to win. And I think that’s what we’ve got right now.”