When the season began, 192 girls’ basketball teams around the state had the same dream — to be one of only four that get to play their final game at the Class 3A state tournament in Austin.
Lorena had a glimpse of what it looks like for that dream to become a reality in 2011. The problem for the Lady Leopards was they were watching Fairfield celebrate after beating them in the Region III final.
It was a painful moment that they didn’t care to duplicate this season — especially since every key member of that squad was going to be back together for another shot.
“After last year’s loss, we decided we weren’t going to let that happen again because we know how badly it hurts,” senior guard Katie Sampson said. “We were going to refuse to lose and do everything we can do make it to state.”
While everything seemed to make sense on paper and expectations were high, there was still reason for doubt.
After all, it’s never easy to start back at the bottom of the mountain after being so close to the pinnacle. Also, what the Lady Leopards were hoping to accomplish had never been done in their hometown.
That changed Saturday.
Lorena finally broke through that final barrier to the state tournament with a 49-45 victory over Madisonville in the regional final.
“It’s so nice, and we’re still on cloud nine,” senior guard Calley Crye said. “We’ll see each other walking down the hallways and we’re smiling, or we’ll see Coach (Rodney) Gee and he’s smiling. It’s so surreal because we’ve dreamed about this since we were little, and it’s finally coming true.”
The Lady Leopards will make their state tournament debut when they meet No. 5 Celina at 2 p.m. today at the Frank Erwin Center.
It’s easy to look at where they sit now and say the season went exactly how Lorena drew it up, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was less than two months ago that the Lady Leopards were just another 0-1 team in district after a road loss to La Vega.
Raising their game
At that point, not only was Lorena not looking like a state team, but it wasn’t the favorite in its own district any more.
“I’m the kind of guy that worries about a lot all the time, but there were several times we were worried about things,” Gee said. “The La Vega loss was one in hindsight, you never want to lose, but looking back on the season that was a moment our kids could’ve gone either way. They realized that you’ve got to play every single possession and fight for everything because nobody’s going to give you anything.”
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Lady Leopards refocused and ran through their last nine district games undefeated to easily lap the field for the 19-3A crown.
After an easy playoff-opening win, they tests got tougher, but Lorena continued to be the team standing at the end — and could relax for the first time when senior forward Erin Sims made two free throws to make it a two-score game with seven seconds left against Madisonville.
Sims turned in a virtuoso performance at the regional tournament with two double-doubles to earn the MVP award.
“It was unreal,” Sims said. “We were watching videos of the final couple of seconds and it gives us the chills. We did it, and I hope it’s something that gives people in the future — they did it, we can do it. It’s possible. It’s cool to finally get over the hump.”
But as strong as Sims was, everybody has had a hand in this run.
Sampson is the steady hand at point guard and a defensive menace who often draws the assignment of guarding the opponent’s top perimeter threat. Crye is also tough defender who can provide an occasional offensive spark. Senior post Briana Lina brings the toughness inside, and is also an underrated interior passer, and when junior guard Summer Dolezel heats up from 3-point range, she can bury them in bunches.
The bench has also chipped in during the playoff run, with senior Emily Jaska and sophomore Ashlyn Bell giving quality minutes on the outside and seniors JoBeth Thompson and Alexis Strickland doing the same down low.
“Anyone on our team can do anything,” Lina said. “If I’m having a bad night, I know one of my teammates is going to step up and take control.”
The community is taking notice of the team’s accomplishments.
Lorena sold out its allotment of 250 tickets before noon Monday, and as Lina said, that was before students ever had a chance to buy them.
“They had to order more, and that’s exciting,” Lina said. “A lot of people have told me congrats and that’s amazing, and it’s just awesome to know that our town knows what we’re doing.”
Unlike last season, the Lady Leopards were never considered an underdog, but they did open the year with a seemingly low ranking of No. 20 and haven’t cracked the top 10 all year.
None of that matters now that the Lady Leopards are one of four teams standing, but they’re still aware of where their ranking of 22nd rates among the participants. Of course, a little extra motivation never hurt anybody.
‘But we know why’
“Last year, when we were basically the underdogs the whole time, we wanted to prove to everyone that we can do this and we don’t need some ranking to tell us we’re good enough,” Sampson said. “Even now, it’s No. 1 (Abilene Wylie), 5 (Celina), 7 (Liberty Hill) and 22, so of course people are thinking, ‘How did they get here?’ But we know why we’re here, because we’ve worked our hardest.”
The hardest thing for Lorena this week has been striking a balance between enjoying the moment and staying focused on the task at hand.
But the Lady Leopards know that while one goal has been accomplished, a state title is the only way they want this season to end. And they know they’ll have a full contingent of fans backing them.
“Everybody knows we have a chance to do something really special in these last two games,” Sims said. “Everybody sees it, but it’s all about getting focused. We’re going out there, and I know we’re going to play well.”
#22 Lorena (29-8) vs. #5 Celina (33-3)
2 p.m. at Frank Erwin Center in Austin
Playoff road: Lorena had a bye, then defeated Huntington, 56-34; No. 19 Bullard 41-37; No. 9 Giddings, 56-49; and No. 16 Madisonville, 49-45; Celina had a bye, then defeated Frisco Lone Star, 48-37; Dallas Madison, 75-49; Pittsburg, 52-24; and No. 4 Texarkana Liberty-Eylau, 65-50
Breakdown: If Lorena wishes to play for a state championship Saturday, it will need to keep Celina off the 3-point line.
The Lady Bobcats drilled all six of their shots from beyond the arc in the first quarter of their regional final win over Liberty-Eylau. Kynzie Newman and Presley Stastny are Celina’s top two gunners and leading scorers at 17.1 and 10.5 points per game.
“They’re a guard-oriented team, and they spread you out to try and shoot 3s or penetrate,” Lorena coach Rodney Gee said. “Defensively, they do some press stuff and play man.”
The Lady Leopards will be giving up about 2 inches per player on the perimeter, so taking care of the ball and not allowing Celina’s extra length will be a key. They also figure to have an advantage inside if Erin Sims, who posted two double-doubles to earn Region III tournament honors, can get going.
“They’re going to start 5-foot-11, 5-11, 5-9, 5-9, 5-4,” Gee said. “So they don’t have tremendous size. They have an advantage on us, but that’s not that big of a deal.”
If the recent pattern holds, expect Lorena’s Katie Sampson to shadow Newman’s every move to keep her from going off, while Calley Crye will likely draw the assignment of guarding Stastny. But the biggest key for Lorena will be communication defensively, especially since Gee said the Lady Bobcats will use tons of ball screens to try and free up their shooters.
Lorena could benefit from Sampson and Summer Dolezel burying some long-range shots of their own to allow Sims and Briana Lina more room to operate inside.
#1 Abilene Wylie (34-5) vs. #7 Liberty Hill (35-4)
3:30 p.m. at Frank Erwin Center in Austin
Playoff road: Abilene Wylie had a bye, then defeated Glen Rose, 67-50; No. 21 Decatur, 71-38; No. 10 Shallowater, 67-41; and No. 2 Kennedale, 63-58; Liberty Hill had a bye, then defeated San Antonio Houston, 98-41; Salado, 54-35; No. 23 Corpus Christi West Oso, 61-13; and Burnet, 58-36
Breakdown: Abilene Wylie returns to Austin hoping to defend its state championship, led by Texas A&M commit Peyton Little, who scored 41 points in the regional final to lift the Lady Bulldogs back to state.
Liberty Hill had the easiest regional run of any state semifinalist, winning each game by at least 19 points, but met only one ranked team in that span.
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