What’s it like going from predator to prey? The Mansfield Timberview basketball team is finding out.
Following its surprising run to the state championship last season, the Wolves are in some unfamiliar circumstances.
“We realized we were the ones being hunted instead of the ones doing the hunting,” senior Isaac Likekele said following Timberview’s first tournament this season. “We realized that every game we play is like the state championship to the other team. To us, it might just be another game. Every game, people are going to give us their best shot.”
Such is life as defending champs, and it gives the season a feel unlike any before in school history.
“It’s a huge difference,” senior guard Chris Mullins said. “This is not just an average Timberview year. Normally, we’re very underrated. It’s a huge difference because this year, people are looking out for us.”
But while that’s different, the team is hoping that keeping the same approach it took last season can give similar results.
“I think that’s what made this group special last year and has carried forward to this year, is that they really did take it one game at a time,” coach Duane Gregory said. “Those voices that dictated that are back, so they’re saying the same things as far as that goes.”
They understand what 10-5A is like and they know if they rest on their laurels, that means somebody is catching them.
Timberview coach Duane Gregory
Mullins, who was MVP of the championship game, admits it wasn’t easy at first. A week or two following that game, people were already talking repeat, and it was hard to focus on the little things.
“We just got back to our roots,” Mullins said. “Coach is real strict on us focusing on the little things. We know we’re not a state-contending team in September and October.”
“I was really pleased with the guys’ attitudes going into offseason,” Gregory added. “They understood they couldn’t just get complacent and stand pat. I think a lot of that has to do with our district. They understand what 10-5A is like and they know if they rest on their laurels, that means somebody is catching them. This offseason they had a really good attitude and good work ethic.”
Timberview does have a lot working in its favor to become the second consecutive back-to-back 5A champs after Lancaster did it in 2015 and 2016, starting with Mullins and Likekele, who was the MVP of the regional tournament the week before the state tournament.
Several other players, including Desmond Clark and C.J. Smith saw the floor last year, and Trazarien White and Trevian Tennyson will all be expected to fill bigger roles.
But like an investment, past returns are not necessarily indicative of future results.
“It’s a different year,” Mullins said. “Yes, we have similar faces, but there are different roles to be played. We’ve got a lot of old faces, but a lot of new roles.”
Gregory noted that, as with any preseason, he’s tweaking and experimenting to get the lineup and chemistry right.
“I told the guys its important we understand a lot of the same guys are back but they’re not the same players,” he said. “They’ve added to their skillsets. We’re trying to figure out where everybody fits best so we’re ready when district rolls around.
“I’ve told the guys our biggest concern this year needs to be playing to our highest potential. If we continue to play at our highest potential, we can let the chips fall where they may and I think we’ll be in good shape most nights.”
Likekele is even more positive about the team’s potential at this point.
“I think we can be even better this year,” he said. “We have more talent this year. People have stepped up their skill levels big-time. As of right now, we’re still learning each other and jelling as a team and trying to crack the code. But I feel like once we get it down, I feel like we’ll be a very dangerous team — better than we were last year.”
Timberview will get a true litmus test on Dec. 5, when Justin Northwest pays a visit. The Texans are the No. 1 5A team in the state according to the recent Texas Association of Basketball Coaches rankings. The Wolves sit at No. 3.
No doubt it will be a big game, but as defending champs, every game becomes big for Timberview, like it or not.
“It definitely feels different,” Likekele explained. “Teams always are excited and going crazy at the beginning of the game, like it’s a state championship game.”
“It’s not really a strange feeling,” Mullins added, “But you do get that feeling that teams really want to beat us, not just because of the names on our jerseys, but because of what we did last year. Everybody compares themselves against us.”
Not that the Wolves need additional motivation to win a second title, but there is a lingering idea some people have that irks the team.
“We’re way more hungry to win the second one,” Likekele said. “We just want to prove to everyone that last year wasn’t a fluke. We want to prove to everybody that we can do it again. We’re way more hungry for a second one.”
Added Mullins, “It’s like people don’t believe we did it, that it was a fluke. So I think it’s more fun because we’re just out there hoopin’. I think the stress is on the other team to try to beat us, whereas we can just play our game and be us.”