By JUSTIN RAINS
The Grapeland boys’ basketball team has been here before. Now, it’s time to move past.
For the third-straight year, the Sandies are headed to the Class 1A, Division I Region III tournament at Tyler Junior College’s Wagstaff Gym after beating Mart Tuesday.
But, Grapeland is hoping that the comparisons stop right there.
The past two seasons, the Sandies have lost in the regional semifinals, both times to Clarksville. GHS coach Owen Clifton, while saying that the team really doesn’t talk about it, knows his players want to make the next step.
“We’re really feeling confident,” Grapeland’s first-year coach said. “We’re not talking about what happened the past years, but we’re playing good basketball. I know that they want to.”
Clarksville isn’t waiting on Grapeland this season. The Tigers moved up to Class 2A in the last realignment, and didn’t even make the regional tournament.
Instead, Grapeland opens with Big Sandy at 10 a.m. Friday in the first Division I semifinal. In the second, Kerens play San Augustine, with the winners of those two games facing off in Saturday’s regional final at 10 a.m.
A large part of Grapeland’s success this season can be attributed to the team’s new balance.
In year’s past, star Patrick Walker has had to contribute the bulk of the scoring for the Sandies to be successful. When that didn’t happen, Grapeland struggled.
But, buoyed by the move in of Jacolby Simpson from Lovelady, Grapeland know has more legit scoring options, which allows Walker the freedom to be a play-maker.
“Sometimes you get a kid like that...who last year was the second best player in the district,” Clifton said of Simpson. “We talked a lot early on about what it is to win and come together as a team. I’m really proud of them...they’re all confident in shooting and scoring. It’s something we push hard that, if you’re open, shoot it.”
Leading that charge of unselfishness has been Walker himself. In Grapeland’s two playoff wins this year, the star junior is only averaging 13 points per game.
But, he’s running the point — his more natural position, both now and in the future — and the freedom to not have to score allows to do more with his overall game.
“Pat is one of the most unselfish stars that you’ll find,” Clifton said. “He loves to win, and that’s all. It’s the only thing that matters to him.”
In Big Sandy, Grapeland will face a very disciplined, fundamentally-sound team, Clifton said. The Wildcats aren’t overly big Clifton said, but do all the little things well.
Because of that emphasis on fundamentals — and a solid zone defense — Clifton said the Sandies could struggle if they get stuck in a halfcourt game with Big Sandy.
Luckily, that’s not Grapeland’s game, and the Sandies have the personnel to run, run, run and then run some more.
“They’re not very tall but they’re very disciplined,” Clifton said. “They pass the ball incredibly well and shoot the three-ball well. They’re fundamentally sound.”
OAKWOOD vs. D’Hanis
4 p.m. Friday, New Braunfels
Also making a trip to its respective regional tournament will be Oakwood.
The Panthers clinched a trip to New Braunfels’ Canyon High School with a 91-80 win over LaMarque Academy Tuesday at New Caney High School.
Oakwood, which has been ranked in the top-10 all season, will take on District 30-A, Division II champion D’Hanis, which topped San Isidro, 59-34, in its regional quarterfinal Tuesday.
In Region IV’s other semifinal, Oakwood’s district rival Douglass — which won District 25-A thanks to winning a coin-flip with the Panthers — will take on Menard. Douglass beat Calvert 50-37 Tuesday in Fairfield.
Menard, which won District 29-A, beat Utopia, 53-43, in its regional quarterfinal.
Oakwood and D’Hanis start things off Friday, with the game set to tip-off at 4 p.m. Douglass and Menard will follow at 6 p.m.
The winners of those two games will meet at 3:30 p.m. Saturday to determine which squad gets Region IV’s state tournament berth.
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at email@example.com