The Highland girls basketball team has opened a lot of eyes in the past week by making it to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
The Lady Hornets will face another big challenge on Friday, when they face No. 1-ranked Saltillo in the Class 1A, Division II semifinals. The game will tip off at 1:30 p.m. at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center in Austin.
If Highland — which has been unranked all season despite a slightly better record (31-4) than Saltillo (31-5) — can meet that challenge, it will play for the state title against Whitharral (36-4) or Leakey (24-7) on Saturday night starting at 7 p.m.
But Highland coach Shea Baucom doesn't see tomorrow's game as a David vs. Goliath meeting.
"They are the No. 1 team," he said on Wednesday. "But at the same time, we didn't just sneak into the tournament. "We're not intimidated. We're playing with a lot of confidence."
And, he continued, being considered an underdog "works to our advantage. I think it will challenge our kids."
Highland, with seven players who are 5-10 or taller and three 6-footers, has enjoyed a height advantage over every team it has faced this year.
But Saltillo comes close to matching the Lady Hornets in that department, with five players 5-10 or taller. And like Highland's junior post Sierra Allen, their top scorer (Victoria Stretcher) is a 6-1 post who can dominate on both ends of the floor.
"She is probably the most physical player we've seen all year," Baucom said of Stretcher, who averages 21 points and 12 rebounds a game. "I think it will be a good matchup (against Allen). It will be interesting to watch."
Saltillo's other starters will be guards Karli Brewer (13.1 points, 6.1 assists) and Kendall Bain (10.2 points, 5.8 assists) and forwards Andrea Tippit (10.1 points, 10.3 rebounds) and Ariel Tippit (8.2 points, 7.8 rebounds). The Lady Lions are making their first state appearance in 12 years after beating Coolidge 54-42 in their Region 3 final on Saturday.
Baucom said the most impressive thing to him about Saltillo is its rebounding. But that is also a strength of Highland's, he said, and was a major factor in its win over Baird (55-37) in the regional semifinals at Abilene Christian University, as well as an equally dominating 47-29 win in the regional final over Garden City.
"I thought we rebounded real well at the regional tournament," he said. "And the kids were just determined to do well."
Baucom said he will stick with the starting lineup on Friday that has gotten the team to Austin. That includes Allen (19.6 points, 7.1 rebounds); 5-10 freshman guard Hannah Allen (7.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.1 steals), who is Sierra's younger sister; 5-10 junior forward Beth Richburg (8.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals); 5-8 senior guard Lora Stewart (3.3 points); and 5-6 sophomore guard Madison Moseley (4.4 points), with 5-10 freshman forward Sydny Helbert (4.5 points, 6.4 rebounds) getting extensive playing time as well.
Other top subs for Highland this season have been 5-7 guard Kaylee Martin, 5-3 junior guard Morgan Monroe, 6-0 senior post Stephanie Ashford ad 6-0 junior post Schyler Kimbrell.
Both teams play outstanding defense. Highland has held 22 of its last 23 opponents to under 40 points and only once has a team reached 50. Saltillo has held 28 of 36 foes to under 40 and four times has allowed fewer than 10. Highland has allowed just 10 on two occasions.
"It's going to be key for us to be able to relax and focus on the game," Baucom said. "I think it will come down to who can defend best against the other team on both ends."
Baucom said he thinks Highland is just starting to tap its potential, a scary thought for future opponents but not surprising when you consider that the team has only two seniors on the squad and only one (Stewart) who starts.
"The thing that really excites me is I don't think we've peaked yet," he said. "In Abilene, we took a step and hopefully we can take another one this week."