Stafford High School hasn’t won a boys basketball state championship in nearly 30 years. Hightower is seeking the first title in the school’s 22-year history.
Both are headed to San Antonio with their eyes on the ultimate prize.
Stafford (32-9) will take on Argyle (26-4), the eighth-ranked team in Class 4A according to the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, in a 4A state semifinal scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Alamodome. Hightower (33-5) will clash with Lancaster (36-1), the TABC’s top-ranked team in 5A, in a state semifinal scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
“The ironic thing about it is that this might be the first or second game this year where we’re the underdog,” Hightower coach Stephen Woods said Monday. “We go from all year being hunted to being the hunter.”
The Hurricanes already are on a historic track by returning to the UIL state tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 season. But they’re hungry for more after losing in the regional quarterfinals last year.
“What happened last year, we didn’t want it to happen again,” Hightower senior Cameron Collins said. “… We’re not letting anything stop us.”
Collins is one of four Hightower seniors who are multi-year lettermen, along with Javon Butler, Christopher Harris and Kristopher O’Neal. They have ushered in one of the most successful runs in school history.
“We knew this was our last time to do it,” O’Neal said. “We’ve been playing with and against each other since we were younger, just forming that bond. It’s a blessing.”
The Hurricanes have won 87 games over the past three seasons, but they know what ultimately gets remembered.
“We’ve been talking about (state) since we were freshmen, and we put it all together as a team,” Harris said. “We’re ready.”
The same can be said for Woods, who is in his fifth season at the helm for the Hurricanes. He previously was the head coach at Aldine MacArthur High School, where he never had a winning season in six years.
Fast forward to the present, and he’s taken the Hurricanes to four postseason berths and his first state tournament.
“It’s a great feeling. I was pleased. I was happy,” he said. “But we want to win state. I’m really happy for the community and the guys on the team. Going is not the goal, winning is.”
If the Hurricanes win it all, it’s likely that sophomore sensation Bryce Griggs will be at the center of it all. Following a freshman season in which he averaged 21 points per game while garnering all-district, all-region and all-state honors, Griggs has exceeded that level of performance this season, according to his coach.
He’s averaging more than 24 points per game this season while developing into a more vocal leader on the court.
“It speaks volumes about his maturity and the skill level he has on the court. He’s a sophomore in the classroom, but a senior on the court,” Woods said. “… When you talk about someone who’s got the ultimate confidence, that’s Bryce. His teammates have the ultimate confidence in him. They’re gelling right now, and it’s showing.”
The sentiment is mutual for Griggs, a four-star recruit who already holds five major-college offers.
“I trust in my brothers every day and we put in work every day. If we come out with the mindset that we’re the hunting team, we’re going to go deep,” he said. “Early in the season we didn’t really have much of an inside presence, so we put in some extra work. Coach turned (our post players) into dogs, and that’s also my job as the point guard. They’re showing it here in the playoffs and we’ll show it in San Antonio.”
Fork in the road
The road to state hasn’t come without some bumps, though. Both Woods and his players said an 86-74, district-opening loss to Alvin Shadow Creek on Jan. 10 was a wakeup call that they couldn’t simply be on cruise control.
Hightower beat Shadow Creek 80-64 in the teams’ second meeting and won 71-62 when they met in Saturday’s Region III-5A final.
“Everything changed (after Jan. 10),” Butler said.
Several players also cited the McDonald’s Invitational in November, when Hightower lost against state-ranked Class 6A opponents Katy Morton Ranch and Richardson, as key learning moments.
The Hurricanes take a 15-game winning streak to San Antonio.
“The ultimate goal is to prepare us for the season – district play. And it worked. We’re here and we’re still playing,” Woods said.
On paper, the Hurricanes face long odds on Thursday.
Lancaster has won 34 consecutive games entering Thursday’s matchup. In addition to being the top-ranked 5A squad, the Tigers are 18th in ESPN’s national rankings.
But Woods and the Hurricanes aren’t backing down. Should they beat Lancaster, they’ll face either San Antonio Wagner (35-5) or Mansfield Timberview (29-8) in the 5A final at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re playing with house money – we’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “Nobody outside of Houston expects us to beat them. But one thing I know about my team is that they love a challenge.”
Spartans back at state
Stafford defeated 16th-ranked Boerne 49-48 in Saturday’s Region IV-4A final to secure its spot in San Antonio.
After trailing 20-18 at halftime, the Spartans roared back to win their 32nd game of the season.
This will be the Spartans’ sixth trip to the state tournament and first since the 2009-10 season as they seek their first state championship in nearly 30 years. Stafford won its only state basketball title as a 3A program in 1992.
“It’s awesome to see the hard work they put in with the expectations we’ve put on them,” said second-year coach David Montano, who previously went to state twice with La Marque High School. “Thousands of athletes go through this every year and don’t even come close to getting to the state tournament.”
Montano harkened back to a midseason six-game losing streak that began with the Fort Bend ISD tournament as a key moment in the season.
“We lost focus on what we were trying to do in the scheme of things,” he said.”
Shortly after, however, the Spartans won twice at the Rebel Classic in Buda in late December, kick-starting a turnaround.
Stafford has now won 19 consecutive games entering Friday’s contest.
“At that point, we were either going to get it together or sink,” Montano said. “…We needed to get back to what had gotten us there in the beginning.”
If the Spartans win, they will face either Houston Yates (26-4) or Oak Cliff Faith Family Academy (24-13) in the 4A championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday.