A basketball renaissance

This year's team has changed the course of the program

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Jackson Posey

Armel Talla drives for a layup against New Braunfels. Talla, a senior, averaged 5.6 PPG this season.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

This season marked a turning point in the history of Smithson Valley basketball.

The girls’ team made its third straight playoff appearance and were district favorites heading into the season. Now Excellence is the expectation for the Lady Rangers.

But the boys might have begun a sort of basketball renaissance at a program long overshadowed by football. For the first time, hallway conversations made room for a sport overlooked for so long. Rather than solid gold statues of head football coach Larry Hill, students are discussing the Bench Mafia. Instead of asking about the quarterback situation, they ask about last night’s basketball score.

In stark contrast to years past, the team managed to not only be successful, but also draw fans.

“It’s great,” head coach Ike Thornton said of his team’s newfound popularity. “That’s (the) atmosphere that I envisioned when I first came here. I dreamed that it would be that way, that we’d be able to fill up the stands, and people would cheer and be vocal at the games. It’s coming to fruition.

“Like I tell the guys, we don’t play for the fans, but we certainly appreciate them, and they’re a big part of us and we don’t wanna disappoint ’em. We want them to continue to come and support the team, because I think everybody likes to support a winner.”

And for the first time in years, the fans have a winner to support. The program had not reached the playoffs since 2014, a 17-16 season (3-7 in district) that resulted in a first-round playoff exit. The previous season, the team had the same record but without the playoff berth. Beyond that, they had not even had a winning record since at least 2004-2005 (online record archives only stretch back to 2005-2006).

Continuing this success, however, will be a difficult undertaking. The team loses eight seniors to graduation this season, including four starters (Armel Talla, Austin Kenwisher, Owen Woodard, Devante Mount), a few key roles players (Michael Cruz, Caleb Mosley, Kaleb White) and Bench Mafia co-founder Sean Arington.

But there’s no time to look at the past, especially when the future looms so large. The team stands to return just three rotation players from this year’s squad: freshman Zayden High, sophomore Ryne Kaiser and junior Cody Garcia. Tristan Ortiz, a junior, should become a key cog in the team’s plans after an injury knocked him out for this season.

Thornton mentioned Garrett Mathis as a player they hope can”develop and come in next year and get big minutes on varsity.” He’s called the sophomore class “pretty talented.” And, who knows? He might raid the Bench Mafia and give Kylen Morton or Jalen Nutt rotation minutes next season. But the lack of returning experience yields more questions than answers. 

The book on this season could be all about missed opportunities. The team lost four of its final five games, after all. Ortiz missed the season with injury and defensive ace Mosley broke his thumb. And look at all those late turnovers! Surely this was a season marred by disappointment.

But it wasn’t. This season, more than so many others, spawned hope. Hope that Smithson Valley basketball could be relevant again, after years embroiled in mediocrity or worse. Hope that the end of the bench would be a place for celebration rather than self-pity. Hope that the time to win is now, no matter how many times the past said, “no.” Hope, after all, is just passion for what is possible. And this team, more than any other, has turned pipe dreams into possibilities.

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