Lady Tigers two victories away from advancing to San Antonio

MAY — When the May Lady Tigers travel to Abilene this evening, they’ll be the first team from the small town of just over 1,600 to make it to the regional basketball tournament in at least two decades, if not longer. Getting there wasn’t easy and it was a long, hard road that saw many tough opponents over the course of their schedule. They have navigated that road successfully, however, and now they’re ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

Now four rounds deep into the state playoffs, the No. 9 Lady Tigers (25-6) will face a tough team from O’Donnell (26-4) at 8:30 p.m. at ACU’s Moody Coliseum in the Region II-A semifinals. The No. 14 Lady Eagles are also riding a win streak that hasn’t seen them lose since mid-January, when they fell to No. 16 ranked Klondike at home, losing by 10 points.

There’s no doubt that Friday’s game will be one of the toughest they’ve faced all season, but the team feels they’re more than ready. Just ask any of the three captains, or even their head coach, and you’ll see (and hear) a feeling of excitement present in each of them to prove themselves, not as individuals, but as a team.

“We’ve been playing basketball all year long, preparing for this,” said junior point guard Kelsie Gage. “Going all the way is something we’ve dreamed of for as long as I can remember. Getting to this point is a huge accomplishment for us as a team and we want to see it go even further.”

To say the accomplishment is important might be an understatement. It’s something that not only the players and their parents have rallied around, but the community of May as well.

“Words can’t describe what this means to me, the rest of the team and pretty much everyone we know from here,” Julia Robinette, a senior team captain, explained. “I know I’m really excited and so is everyone else around the school and town. This team has made history and it’s been a long time since anyone has made it this far, so this is a huge deal for us. We’re all so excited to be a part of this.”

Each girl on the team not only wants to win for themselves, but also for everyone who’s encouraged them since they began playing sports for the school years ago.

“It’s really heartwarming to know everyone stands behind us,” Robinette said. “To see everyone drive hours to come watch you play is something amazing, so I’m happy we’ve been able to make it this far to give something to those people. I love the love that everyone shows.”

Robinette’s two fellow team captains echoed those sentiments.

“I’ve lived here forever, so I’ve always felt support from our community,” said senior Hannah Williams. “Things like having the church across the street from the school telling you they’re supporting you and praying for you to do well is so awesome. The whole community is just here showing support and I’ve always known that. So to be able to give them something like this after all their support is amazing. These are people that want to watch you and that love you, and now we get to give them something in return.”

“Being In May all my life, I’ve gotten to know not just everyone here, but all the people we play in all sports from the area schools. So in a way we’re going there to represent ourselves and those people as well. It’s great being able to play for not just our town, but our area too,” added Gage.

While they’re proud to have already accomplished so much for their town, the plan is for the season to not stop in the regional semifinal round. After all, they want to see this thing through, all the way to the state finals in San Antonio.

A win against O’Donnell means playing again Saturday against the winner of Klondike and No. 4 Garden City, who square off at 7 p.m. If they get through that mini-gauntlet, they will take part in the state tournament that begins March 2.

Don’t expect this team to be looking that far ahead though.

Since winning on Tuesday night against Roby in the regional quarterfinals, the Lady Tigers have been preparing feverishly for Friday’s showdown. Every player is extremely focused and only have their sights set on their matchup against O’Donnell’s Lady Eagles.

They’ve put in the practice. They’ve done their homework. Their coaches have prepared them as much as they possibly can for what’s in store for them over the course of the weekend. The planning and preparation phase is over.

Now it’s time to execute, said May head coach Jeff Blackburn.

“That’s what it comes down to — execution,” Blackburn said. “We have to execute. We’ve seen intense pressure from everyone up to this point in the playoffs. Everyone has attempted to pressure us heavily and we’ll see the same from (O’Donnell) I expect. We have to handle that well. We have to do what we’ve been doing and do that well.

“We have got to take care of the ball first and foremost. We have to do that and we have to not give them easy baskets. If we rebound and play good defense, then the rest will fall in place. We’re going to score. That’s always going to be huge for us. We’ll get the points, so we have to do the other things right like rebounding, playing sound defense and, in this case, not giving up easy baskets by not turning the ball over.”

One thing Blackburn believes sets Friday’s opponent from the rest is their athleticism.

“From my understanding, O’Donnell is very athletic and is quicker than the teams we’ve seen as of late,” he said. “I expect them to test us early on.”

Fortunately for the Lady Tigers, they’ve seen this type of athleticism already. It may have not been against any team May has faced up to this point, but the fact remains that they have seen it and played against it fairly recently.

“These girls have played in leagues since the summer that has put them up against schools such as Abilene High and Abilene Wylie, so I think we can handle that part of it,” Blackburn explained. “It won’t be something that they’ve not gone against before and that’s thanks in part to them playing in those leagues and playing up against tougher competition. They’ll be ready for it.

“This is a team that’s really focused. They really got their act together around Christmas time and then afterward they just began to play lights out. You can tell they are focused. That’s why they’ve won 18 in a row.”

Although Blackburn doesn’t know how Friday’s game will turn out, he knows his team’s persistence and hard work up to this point has them right where they need to be. He also knows they’re primed to continue their historic run.

“They belong here,” said Blackburn. “They really do belong here. They rise up to the occasion each and every game, so I want them to realize that they belong. It’s not some dream out there that can’t be reached, but it’s a reality for them. If we play like we’re capable of, then I really like our chances. They belong here and they deserve to be here. It’s just up to them how far we go, but I know the sky is the limit for these girls.”