ARGYLE — As the crowd roared inside Texas A&M-Commerce’s Field House on Saturday, Argyle freshman Vivian Gray calmly stepped to midcourt for the opening tip of the Class 3A Region II final against Celina.
A year ago, Gray was an eighth-grader roaming the halls at Argyle Middle School. Against Celina, Gray and her teammates were playing for a chance to be one of the four teams in the 3A state tournament.
So far this season, Gray and the rest of Argyle’s young basketball team have not collapsed under pressure from opponents or their head coach. When Argyle (35-1) faces Geronimo Navarro (33-7) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Texas’ Frank Erwin Center in the state semifinals, the Lady Eagles will only have one senior on their roster.
Argyle coach Skip Townsend said the on-court intelligence of his young squad has enabled the team to reach the 3A state tournament for the second time.
“There are lots of kids that are tall and athletic,” Townsend said. “But these kids understand the game of basketball. There are lots of kids that are in the gym every day and play all the time, but they don’t have the basketball IQ.
“That’s something you can’t teach. That’s an innate ability, and they have that. All of them do. You haven’t seen the best out of this freshman class.”
Argyle will look to its young squad to bring home the school’s second girls basketball state title and its first in Class 3A. The Lady Eagles won the 2A title in 2006.
In the game that sent Argyle to this weekend’s state tournament, Townsend opened with a designed play for Gray, who scored 30 points in Argyle’s area-round playoff victory over Dallas Roosevelt.
Gray didn’t hit her first shot, but she finished the game with a team-high 17 points. Freshman Madison Ralston also had a key performance, as she added 10 points. Gray’s game-winning free throw with 4.8 seconds left in the second overtime set up Thursday’s matchup against Navarro.
“To stand there with 4.8 seconds on the clock — and you’re standing there shooting a free throw in a place like that with about 800 orange people screaming at you — that’s pretty tough,” Townsend said.
Ralston, Gray and the five other freshmen on the Argyle roster never lost a middle school game.
Gray’s older sister, sophomore Olivia Gray, told her little sister to not expect anything immediately.
“I told her not to expect it, and expect to have a little bit of hardship when she’s coming up, because it’s a difficult transition going from middle school ball to high school — and varsity,” Olivia Gray said.
Vivian Gray and Ralston cracked the starting lineup, joining Olivia Gray and juniors Jesse Sheridan and Delaney Sain. Against Round Rock Cedar Ridge in December, the freshmen figured out that high school basketball will not be easy every night.
Argyle quickly trailed Cedar Ridge 14-0. The Lady Eagles fought back to briefly hold the lead but eventually lost 47-41.
It remains Argyle’s only loss. Townsend said his team matured that night.
“We grew up a lot right there, and we’ve grown up throughout the season,” Townsend said. “I think every game that we’ve played against our district we’ve grown up, because our district’s tough. Everybody in our district is tough. Even the last place team in our district is very athletic and very physical.”
The freshmen immediately faced pressure and expectations from Townsend, who won six state championships at Brock. The juniors, along with lone senior Bailey Eschle, showed the freshmen what was going to be required in high school.
“It’s very different,” Vivian Gray said. “Everybody’s better. They’re a lot stronger and taller and faster. There’s not somebody that’s just good at one thing. They’re all good at everything.”
There will be no surprises when Argyle faces Navarro on Thursday with a berth in the state championship game on the line. Navarro will be aware of what the young Lady Eagles are capable of. Argyle’s freshmen know what will be required to bring home the team’s first 3A title.
“They’ve matured throughout the season and they’ve gotten a lot tougher, and I’m really proud of them for that,” Sain said. “Imagine playing in junior high last year and now you’re playing in a state [tournament] game.”