On Saturday morning, hours before Mexia’s regional final matchup with Athens, Walter Smith was laboring over his pregame speech.
Leading scorer D.J. Weathers would very likely miss the game. Mexia was in search of its first state berth since 2001, when the Blackcats won their second title in three years. And though it was on the other side of a 15-game winning streak, Mexia’s last loss of the season was to Athens.
All these things weighed on Smith, Mexia’s fifth-year coach. Then he got a text message.
“You could just see the look in their eyes when I was reading it to them,” Smith said. “As soon as I said Jesse Kimbrough, the eyes kind of lit up.”
Kimbrough was a member of the 1999 and 2001 Mexia state championship teams, and he caught wind of the Blackcats’ run from Holland, where he plays professionally.
Along with former teammate Rickey Huckaby, Kimbrough owns something of a cult status in Mexia. That goes double for a roster of basketball-crazed teenagers from Mexia sitting in a locker room in Huntsville. Kimbrough sent the text just before the game and asked that it be read aloud.
It was full of encouragement and reminders of Mexia’s decorated history at state, just the kind of message Smith was looking to send.
“Just hearing it from him, it meant a whole lot to us,” Weathers said.
Smith delivered Kimbrough’s message, and Mexia delivered a 60-59 win over Athens without Weathers, who sat with an injury to his left Achilles tendon. According to Smith, Weathers will likely be near 100 percent when Mexia (31-5) takes on Burkburnett (32-3) at 3:30 p.m. today in the Class 3A state semifinals at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.
It’s beginning to feel an awful lot like the turn of the 21st century in Mexia these days.
“Every day at the stores, food places, restaurants, everybody’s telling us ‘Good job,’ and to go down there and win it,” junior guard Mister Carroll said.
Weathers and Carroll make up the core of Mexia’s stellar junior class, which went through its seventh and eighth grade years without losing a single game. Smith fully reunited that class on varsity for the first time this season with additions to the rotation like Alaric Strain and Leon Gray.
Carroll and Weathers have been playing together since they were 4 years old, but that entire class shares a court sense that can only be forged through countless hours together on the court.
“They have great chemistry,” Smith said. “They just seem to know where each other’s at on the floor all the time.”
Smith had to grow along with his current roster. To make space for a dynamic cast of upperclassmen, Smith dialed down his play-centric offense in favor of a more organic coaching style. With no player taller than 6-1 in the starting lineup, his scheme has become a prime example of form following functionality.
Smith likes to say that he doesn’t call plays, he calls offenses. It’s a framework that allows his small but lightning quick lineup enough freedom to employ its own brand of open-court artistry.
Weathers popping out three feet behind the line for a 3-pointer might make some coaches cringe. For Smith, it’s all part of the plan.
“As a coach, it takes a while to get used to that, to have kids that are capable of doing that,” Smith said. “It took me a while to get this mindset that I’ve got to let them play.”
A midseason defensive change, however, was not in the original blueprint.
In a single week in early January, Mexia lost nearly half of its games for the entire season in back-to-back losses to La Vega and Athens. Defense was deemed the primary culprit.
So Smith conferred with his coaches and decided to go from strictly man defense to strictly zone with district play starting up the following week. The Blackcats have won 16 straight games under the scheme, with district and regional titles falling in that span.
“It’s a good defense for us,” Carroll said. “We’re little in size but we can move around, so the zone is good for us.”
Mexia’s junior class was just 7 years old when Mexia won its last state title, but most of the team still carry memories from that season. Weathers and crew hope to make a similar impression on a few Mexia youngsters this week.
“I remember when I was younger, I used to look up to those guys,” Weathers said. “It feels good to know that you can be a role model and inspire these kids that are trying to play basketball in Mexia.”
In Burkburnett, Mexia matches up with a similarly up-tempo offense lacking in sheer size, much like most of its matchups this year in the playoffs. It is a situation that benefits the Blackcats more so than a matchup with a taller team, Smith said.
Mexia will still have its hands full. Burkburnett knocked off defending champ and state No. 1 Lubbock Estacado in the regional semis. With the exception of a warm-up loss to Dallas Madison, the Bulldogs have won 17 straight. Burkburnett is averaging a 30-point margin of victory over that span.
However Mexia comes out, the Blackcats are determined to make today’s contest a memorable one.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling,” Weathers said. “It was kind of hard to believe at first. As the weekend passed, you kind of realized, ‘We’re going to state.’ We’re going to have to get ready to play some good basketball.”