Almost exactly one calendar year ago, the Lake Ridge girls basketball team entered its final district game at Waxahachie with a playoff berth on the line. The scenario was simple: win and reach the postseason in the school’s first year of existence. The Lady Eagles fell behind by 26 points at halftime. They came almost all the way back, ultimately losing by six, making the heartbreak of missing the playoffs that much more painful.
“When you’re so close to making it and you don’t, it stings and it stays with you,” Lake Ridge coach Stephani Gray said. “The kids wrote that score everywhere in the locker room last year and we talked about it several times throughout the season this year, in terms of things like how every possession is important, and remember, we were two possessions away from making the playoffs last year. That’s been a constant theme throughout.”
Some 51 weeks after that loss, the Lady Eagles took the court against Lancaster with a chance to almost lock down the school’s first-ever playoff berth. With the memory of Waxahachie omnipresent, the Lady Eagles led wire-to-wire to take a stranglehold on the fourth and final playoff berth from District 15-4A.
“The main thing that we brought out of the Waxahachie game last year was the pain and heartbreak from losing our spot in playoffs,” junior guard Marina Hawkins said. “As a team, we have made sure to keep that feeling in the back of our mind, to remind ourselves that we never want it to happen again.”
The Lady Eagles’ win over Lancaster didn’t mathematically clinch a spot in the postseason – a loss to Waxahachie on Tuesday coupled with a Legacy victory against Arlington Seguin would mean a Lake Ridge-Legacy play-in game on Friday. But having their playoff destiny in their own hands in the final regular season game is something this year’s Lady Eagles are prepared to deal with.
“I think that this year the difference is that we are more confident in our capabilities,” senior Anna Chambliss said. “We know what we are capable of and won't settle for less. We really have a refuse-to-lose mentality, which is something Coach has been talking about all season that we have adopted and embraced.”
A year of building chemistry and maturing has helped this Lake Ridge squad – which is still extremely young. In fact, Chambliss is the lone senior on the roster. But the entire team has bought in to Gray’s culture and philosophies, and to each other.
“It’s sometimes leadership by committee,” Gray said. “Usually, to be a great team you need strong leadership, but they’ve all stepped up and they know their roles on the team and they embrace that role.”
“We don't just practice and play games together, we really are a family,” Hawkins added. “We eat lunch together, go out together, have sleepovers and parties. It's a fun experience to be a part of a team that really enjoys each other.”
Should Lake Ridge advance to the postseason, it will face the top seed from District 16-4A, Tyler John Tyler, in the first round. It would be the first playoff experience for any of the Lady Eagles players – and nerves could be expected.
“I think more than nerves, it will be complete excitement,” Gray said. “It’s special when you’re the first class to make the playoffs in girls basketball. That’s something they can always carry with them.
“This team, you can never count them out,” she added. “No matter what the score says, they just have so much fight and heart in them that they’re going to go compete no matter who it is.”
Hawkins also feels her team can enter the playoffs with confidence.
“Last year, as a team we were inexperienced and nervous, but now we know what we're capable of and will settle for nothing less than our best,” she said.
But first things first – Lake Ridge must make sure it officially clinches that final playoff berth.
“Last year's Waxahachie game has been the big driver all season, especially in our last few district games,” Chambliss said. “We are determined to not to allow our season to end the same way again.”