ARGYLE — When the Liberty Christian boys basketball team gathers in Mansfield this weekend, they’ll be playing for a TAPPS 5A state championship.
But a quick look at the bracket simplifies things a bit, as the Warriors might as well be playing in a TAPPS District 1-5A tournament.
All of the teams in the 5A final four are from the seven-team district, including Liberty Christian, which will face Fort Worth Nolan Catholic at 9 p.m. today at Mansfield Timberview for the right to play either John Paul II or Plano Prestonwood in the state championship Saturday at Mansfield Legacy.
“Going into the year, we knew our district was good, but I was thinking some other school would sneak in,” senior forward Luke Kornet said. “It really helps confirm to us that we’re one of the best teams in the state.
“It does kind of take away from the excitement of playing a different team, but we’ve been playing these teams for a few years now and know all the guys, so all the games should be exciting.”
The excitement is there for the Warriors (33-6), and so is the familiarity. They know the Vikings are led by post Michael Hoffman and shooting guard Landon Russell, and also they know they beat Nolan twice this season in district play — by six points at home and by 11 points in Fort Worth.
“I think it’s going to be a really good game,” senior guard Austin Freet said. “Their key is Hoffman, and if we shut him down, we should be good to go. We’re going have to come out with a lot of energy and intensity because they’re definitely a good team. We won’t underestimate them because we’ve beaten them twice.”
Hoffman and Russell combined for 76 points in the Vikings’ two district losses to the Warriors. Even though his team won both of those games, Liberty head coach Frank Kornet, who is Luke Kornet’s father, knows the Nolan duo are still the two points of focus for his team’s defense.
“You have to know where they are all the time,” Frank Kornet said. “They’re going to knock down shots. They’re excellent players, but you have to make them work for everything they get. You can’t give them free ones because then you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
While the state tournament bracket might have surprised Luke Kornet a bit, it came as no surprise to his father.
Liberty Christian and John Paul II tied for the district title, with John Paul II earning the district’s top seed for the playoffs in a complicated tiebreaker despite the two teams splitting their games in TAPPS 1-5A play. Liberty won a third matchup, but it came in a tournament. The Warriors went 4-0 against Nolan and Prestonwood.
Of course, Prestonwood has regained the services of its best player, and the No. 2-ranked recruit in the country in Julius Randle, who returned for the regular-season finale and the team’s two playoff games. He played in neither game against the Warriors.
“Trying to beat a team like that [Nolan] three times is a daunting task, to say the least,” Frank Kornet said. “Throughout the season, I always thought whoever came out of the district could’ve made it to state, and we end up with four teams in it. Nolan, us and John Paul, throughout the year, have been at the top, and now Prestonwood has Julius Randle back, which obviously changes things.”
With 10 of Liberty’s 14 players being seniors and playing what could be their final high school game tonight, and if all goes well in Saturday’s state final, Kornet said he believes his team is experienced and smart enough to know that two regular-season victories don’t mean a postseason victory over the same team is a given.
“With high school kids a lot of the times, it can get in a young man’s mind that we’ve already beaten them twice and can get past them, but they know better,” Frank Kornet said. “They’re smart kids. Both times we beat Nolan, it could’ve easily gone the other way, and I’ve already talked to them about that.”
Of all the seniors on the squad, there might not be one with more riding on tonight’s game than Luke Kornet, who could not only be playing his final high school game but also playing his final game with his dad as his head coach.
And for Frank Kornet, it’s going to be a bittersweet weekend, win or lose.
“It’ll be special because I do have a son that’s a senior, and a lot of people don’t believe me, but I hate coaching him,” Frank Kornet said. “I’m actually looking forward to next year when he’ll be gone and it’ll just be a bunch of young men that I don’t have a relationship with like I do Luke.
“It’s got to be difficult on him sometimes, too. I love watching him play, but it’s hard coaching him. I’ll enjoy this weekend, but to me it’s all about the kids.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .