MARLIN — What do you think of when you think of Marlin?

For the people who live there, Marlin is more than a Highway 6 speed trap. It’s more than its reputation as an economically and academically disadvantaged community. Marlin is home.

And for the hometown folks, the Marlin Lady Bulldogs girls basketball team represents everything good about this Falls County city of roughly 6,000 people. As the Lady Bulldogs prepare for the school’s first-ever trip to the UIL state tournament on Thursday, they serve as a source of pride to those purple-attired citizens of Marlin.

“What this means for Marlin is incredible,” sophomore guard Kierrae Davis said. “We made history for Marlin, the first time for us going to state.”

Of course, the Marlin girls are in it to win it. Asked what a state championship would mean for a town and a school that hasn’t been able to celebrate a title since the Marlin boys’ track team won state in 1991, senior forward Ar’mesha Clay said, “It would mean a lot. It would really put Marlin on the map. ... I’m proud, because this is finally something that someone can positively say about Marlin — instead of all the negatives.”

When Lawrence Gullette moved to Marlin to take the head girls basketball coaching job before the 2016-17 season, he didn’t see desolation. He saw potential.

In Gullette’s first season, Marlin won 26 games and made it to the second round of the UIL state playoffs before dropping a 68-67 heartbreaker to a feisty Buffalo team. As coaches are prone to do, Gullette attended the state tournament a couple of weeks later, even though his team wasn’t involved. He watched the other teams there, mentally taking notes and comparing them to his own squad.

As he watched, one pervasive thought pulsed in his mind – why not us?

“I asked the young ladies, what did they want to accomplish? They said they want a state championship,” Gullette said. “I told them, I believe we can get it. Going through the playoffs last year and getting knocked out by a really good Buffalo team, and just watching the playoffs from that point and seeing the teams and how they play, I felt we had a good chance with the pieces we had coming back this year. So that’s definitely something we talked about, and definitely something we believe in.”

On the court, Marlin wants to make its opponents uncomfortable. Restless teams are careless teams. Gullette tries to prepare the Lady Bulldogs in practice for every situation they may encounter in a game. But, mostly, he wants the opponent to be more concerned with game-planning for what Marlin brings to the floor.

“Some coaches get caught up looking at other teams and how to prepare for that team. But, for me, my experience has taught me that we’re pretty good,” Gullette said.

Or, as senior guard Dyneshia Bailey put it, “We stick to what we do, and that’s the key to the wins we get.”

Marlin’s players know it helps having a certain Mystique on their side, too. Specifically Mystique Womack, the junior guard who ranks as one of the top players in the state. A deft dribbler and crafty scorer, the University of Alabama commit averages 26.1 points and 4.3 steals per game on the season.

“She always had skills,” said her backcourt mate Bailey. “I’ll give her that, she always had skills, and when she first came up as a freshman, I knew that we would have a good high school career and basketball team.”

Womack routinely makes jaw-dropping plays, even for her teammates who have grown accustomed to witnessing the remarkable on a daily basis. In Marlin’s regional final win over Grandview last Saturday, she corralled an offensive rebound while on the floor, then flipped the ball up and in while sitting on her backside.

“When she shot the ball off the ground, that was amazing,” junior forward LaRachel Taylor said.

Added Bailey: “That’s the one. That got me.”

Yet even Womack’s on-court mystique was born out of countless hours working on her game in the gym and the blacktop. Gullette stresses hard work from his players. It’s imperative.

And, contrary to what outsiders might think, it starts in the classroom.

“I check their grades three, four times a week,” Gullette said. “If I see something that doesn’t look right, I go to them and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on in this class? You have to handle your business.’ We definitely put academics first, and we definitely believe in the student before athlete.”

On the whole, Marlin ISD has faced difficulty succeeding in the classroom. The Texas Education Agency recently stripped the school district of its accreditation, and the district has faced the looming prospect of closure.

But the Lady Bulldog basketball players represent the best of Marlin. It’s what the town aspires to be. They work hard, they make good grades, they get along and they win.

At the Region III-3A tournament at Midway last weekend, it seemed that all of Marlin showed up to lend their support in the team’s quest to reach state. They filled the Midway gym, loudly cheering every Lady Bulldog steal or layup or 3-point bomb.

“I appreciate every last one of them. I call them Bulldog Nation,” Gullette said.

Not that it really surprised the Marlin team. “It was good, but I know we’re going to have support behind us,” Bailey said. “It doesn’t matter how far we go, we’re always going to have support.”

Gullette hopes that a sizable contingent of Bulldog Nation travels to San Antonio to help Marlin’s cause. The Lady Bulldogs will face Vanderbilt Industrial (34-5) in the Class 3A state semifinals at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Alamodome. Should they win that game, they’ll play for a state title at 10 a.m. Saturday.

So, what do you think of when you think of Marlin?

Soon enough, it could be a champion.

“I’m a religious man and I feel that God has smiled on Marlin,” Gullette said. “He put us in this situation to go out and do something spectacular, that’s never been before. At a time when the news has been not-so-great.

“I feel like this is definitely a bright spot, and that he’s definitely put us in a place to just accomplish some things where people can hold their heads up, to not be ashamed to say, ‘Hey, I’m from Marlin.’ But stick your chest out and say it loud and proud — ‘I’m from Marlin!’ I feel that’s great, a wonderful thing.”

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