After leading Aledo to the state tournament last year, Rusty Johnson left the successful program for the job at Justin Northwest, where the Texans had endured four seasons of single-digit wins.Johnson knew it would be an uphill climb. But it’s been one his team is making with progress.Northwest beat Haltom 37-36 on Tuesday, moving into sole possession of fourth place in District 4-5A. With four-regular season games left, a 2-2 finish could clinch a playoff spot for Northwest, which hasn’t reached the postseason since 2009. The Texans (12-11, 4-6) went 2-28 last year, including 0-14 in district play. They play at district-leading Southlake Carroll at 6 p.m. Friday.Johnson said the improvement has been a collaborative effort. “There was no secret when I took the job that they hadn’t won a district game in almost three years,” Johnson said. “But I also knew when I took over there were some young kids that were hungry, a community that was hungry and an administration that was hungry. When you combine those things, you can do good things.”After taking the job, Johnson focused on improving his team’s defense. He said that was a quick way to make big strides.“We’ve got to get stops and keep it low-scoring. That’s what we have to do to win,” he said. “I don’t have kids who are offensively skilled like I’ve had in the past yet. Defense is just how committed are you.”Northwest is led by seniors Brianna Barnhill and Bailey Porter. Alexus Brigham, a 5-foot-8 senior, has also been a big contributor, Johnson said. “[Barnhill and Porter] have been our go-to players,” Johnson said. “[Brigham] is kind of our quiet leader. Those three, to be honest, have been how we have got to where we’re at.”Hawks aiming higherIt was everything Birdville had wanted, yet still not enough. The Hawks lost 60-22 last year to Wichita Falls Rider in the bi-district playoff round. Their goal before the 2012-13 season was to make the postseason. But the 38-point loss left them empty, coach Amy Ingram said.“We sat in the locker room [after the loss] and told them it would never happen again,” Ingram said. “We opened our gym four days a week in the summer. They’ve been playing non-stop basketball ever since.”This season, Birdville has been near the top of District 6-4A, improving to 18-7 overall and 10-2 in district after a 57-38 win over Fort Worth Eastern Hills on Tuesday. A win over Saginaw at home Friday night would give them a two-game cushion for the district’s second playoff spot.“[Last year] showed them if you work hard you can make the playoffs,” Ingram said. “We were determined to not be that fourth seed this year.”On offense, Birdville has scored more than 50 points in 14 games this year. But it’s the defense that has been notable, holding opponents to 34 points a game. The Hawks recently held Fort Worth Carter-Riverside to eight points and Fort Worth North Side to 12 points.Hitting their strideKennedale beat Springtown 115-66 on Tuesday, adding another blowout win to its undefeated District 6-3A record.The Wildcats (13-10, 6-0) had previously beat Fort Worth Diamond Hill-Jarvis 93-9 and Castleberry 79-6. They haven’t played a district opponent within 25 points. But the transition from last year’s state finalist team, which graduated six seniors, to this year’s squad, which is led by first-year head coach Misty Youngs, wasn’t automatic. “The biggest challenge was just getting the girls to buy into the few changes that we’ve made and just making sure that they’re confident in themselves,” said Youngs, who served as an assistant at Kennedale for six years before taking the head coaching job. Arkansas signee McKinley Bolstad, who scored 45 points against Springtown on 85 percent shooting, leads the Wildcats with 22 points a game.The senior is a McDonald’s All-America nominee.
Ryan Osborne, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @RyanOsborneFWST