PONDER — In the Ponder High School gym, the four large outlines of the state of Texas representing four boys’ basketball state championships serve as daily reminders to this seasons’ squad of the allure that comes with winning.
The entire Ponder boys’ basketball program from seventh grade to varsity knows what it’s like to succeed, as every team claimed at least a share of the district championship this season.
So when head coach Jude Stanley and the Lions travel to Stephenville for the Class 2A Region II semifinals at 8 p.m. today, the Red Oak Life Mustangs will represent the first of four final steps back to the state tournament.
“That’s always our goal is to win championships,” Stanley said. “A lot of years, we have, and some years, we haven’t. Just because we fall short one year, we aren’t going to readjust our expectations. They are always high here, and [the players] step up to the challenge.”
For the 29-9 Lions, their list of goals ends with state championships, but when they started the season, they had milestones they wanted to accomplish along the way. They wanted to win 25 games. Check. They wanted to be district champions. They tied Brock, the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches’ No. 5-ranked team in 2A, for the District 9-2A title at 11-1.
Ponder had a bye in the bi-district round and then tussled with Sunnyvale to a 59-53 double-overtime victory. After not playing up to their top level in their opening playoff game, the Lions then defeated Peaster 56-42, after which Stanley graded his team’s execution an A. With two games under their belts, this year’s team is beginning to believe.
“They are starting to see that, especially in the last game, that we have a chance to win it all,” Stanley said. “We said at the start of the season that we can beat anybody in this region and we can be beat by anybody in the region. So we are respectful of that, and I think that keeps us hungry.”
At Tarleton State University, Ponder will have another opportunity in the regional semifinals to check off another goal of 30 wins on the season. If the Lions knock off Red Oak Life, they will face the winner between their district nemesis, Brock, and Mount Pleasant Chapel Hill at 2 p.m. Saturday in Stephenville.
“They are a very talented team,” Stanley said of the 33-6 Mustangs. “They got beat this round [last year] so they are going to be hungry. They’ve got some guards who can get up and down the floor. They’ve also got a big man inside who’s not incredibly tall, but is smart, quick and strong. They are also coming off a big upset of Clarksville, which was one of the favorites last year.”
If the sixth-ranked Lions are going to accomplish that last aspiration, their defense is going to be the ink in the pen that marks it off the list.
“Defense is going to win championships,” Stanley said. “That’s what put those championships on the wall. We’ve had some great offensive teams and we’ve had some great offensive players, but the kids know if you want to get up on that wall, if you want to get on that state of Texas, it’s going to be with solid defense.”
For a defensive-minded team, communication and an overall connection are crucial to its success unlike an offensively geared team that can be carried several different ways. For the Lions, the trust the players have developed among them this year is one of the main reasons they are in the position to win their fourth state championship in the past six years.
“They come in and work hard every day,” junior Clay Morgan said of his teammates. “They are good leaders on the court and off the court, and they are good friends, too. I think we have a lot more team chemistry than we did last year. It helps you trust other guys and you know what they are going to do.”
Stanley said he thinks the team’s cohesion began back in the summer.
“Our team has developed into a close-knit, family atmosphere,” Stanley said. “I think a lot of it started in the summer when they won the Oklahoma team camp. It was the first time we had won that particular team camp since we had been going there. That’s a real important time for those guys to try to bond and get the team together.”
Stanley knows what it takes to win championships, as he was the assistant coach for the 2001 championship team before leaving and returning as head coach of the 2010 championship team. But Stanley said the family atmosphere and overall success couldn’t have been possible without the expertise of assistant coaches Steve Young and James Holt, who were assistants on the 2008, 2009 and 2010 teams.
“You talk about game planning; Steve Young is the best guy, as far as breaking a team down and knowing what an opponent is going to do, in the business bar none,” Stanley said. “These guys know how to work with kids. It’s important, that behind every great team, you’ve got great coaches. Not just a head coach. These guys have been here for a long time for a reason.”
Kade Copp, who fulfilled the Lions’ team scoring needs with a team-high 17 points in their win over Peaster, said the team’s ears really start to perk up at this time of the season.
“We are just trying to take in what the coaches say,” Copp said. “Usually, everybody thinks, ‘we can do it.’ But as the season goes on, the coaches play a huge, huge part. We just take in every single word.We have six seniors and this is our last year. He [Stanley] wants to keep the road going for seniors.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .