DRESS FOR SUCCESS: Finally past Round 3 hurdle, Holt, Academy battle 26-1 New Waverly in 3A-III semi
POSTSEASON APPAREL: Academy head coach James Holt (wearing tie) and assistant coaches Jason Rankin (holding paper) and Chuck Mann wear dress shirts and ties for the Bumblebees' playoff games. They'll do so for the fourth time this postseason when 16th-ranked Academy (20-7) takes on No. 7 New Waverly (26-1) in a Class 3A Region III semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday at Madisonville High School. The Bees have won 13 consecutive games, while the Bulldogs have won 26 straight. The winner will play No. 14 Lorena (23-4) or No. 11 Winnie East Chambers (26-0) for the regional championship at 1 p.m. Saturday. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
MADISONVILLE – Attend a regular-season Academy boys basketball game and you will see fifth-year head coach James Holt and assistant coaches Jason Rankin and Chuck Mann wearing standard clothing for their profession: slacks and either a polo shirt or a pullover.
When the Bumblebees are competing in a playoff game, however, their coaches follow suit by stepping up their fashion game, sporting dress shirts and ties on the sideline.
OK, so maybe ZZ Top's “Sharp Dressed Man” doesn't play over the speakers when Holt, Rankin and Mann emerge from the locker room. But hey, at least their sartorial effort is there.
“I think it sends a message just that it's different. The playoffs is different because there's no tomorrow for one of the teams out there,” said Holt, who favors a white shirt, dark tie and dark slacks. “So I think that kind of sends the message that this is a little bit different and it's more of a business thing and we've got to do what we need to do. It's just us as coaches.”
Academy's players, who don't have to adhere to any strict dress code, certainly seem to get a kick out of seeing the coaches upgrade their game-day attire to correspond with postseason play.
“Dude, I love it,” Bees senior guard Kollin Mraz said. “I think Coach Rankin genuinely enjoys getting dressed up for games. I actually think they all really do, knowing that it's for the reason it is, going to these big games. But Rankin definitely enjoys it the most.”
Added junior point guard Darion Franklin: “So does Coach Mann. I feel like Coach Holt is the last straw.”
But just to show that they're not taking themselves too seriously, Holt, Rankin and Mann also mix in a dash of humor to their wardrobe selections by donning a variety of creative socks. That includes Rankin's pair of Where's Waldo? socks that the players have spotted, leading Franklin to remark that “Rankin has the best sock game.”
“Check their socks. They're awesome,” Mraz said. “Rankin, Mann and Holt all wear the craziest socks.”
“The sock thing, I think Coach Rankin actually started it. Then I started doing it and Coach Mann does it,” Holt said. “A lot of mine are The Beatles. And I like video games, so I've got some Pac-Man socks and some Yoshi socks."
The Academy coaching staff's next opportunity to dress for success comes at 6 p.m. Friday, when the 16th-ranked Bumblebees (20-7) challenge No. 7 New Waverly (26-1) in a Class 3A Region III semifinal at Madisonville High School. The Bees are riding a 13-game winning streak, while the Bulldogs have won 26 consecutive games since a season-opening defeat.
The Academy-New Waverly victor will battle the winner of Friday's 8 p.m. semifinal – also at Madisonville in what will be a true regional tournament – between No. 14 Lorena (23-4) and No. 11, unbeaten Winnie East Chambers (26-0) in Saturday's 1 p.m. regional championship game at Madisonville, with a berth in next week's state semifinals at stake. The 3A state championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m. next Friday at San Antonio's Alamodome.
BOMBS AWAY: Academy senior wing Jaylin McWilliams (left) shoots a long 3-point attempt during the Bumblebees' 59-37 area-round playoff win over Scurry-Rosser last Wednesday in Buffalo. McWilliams is the reigning District 19-3A MVP and the leading scorer for 16th-ranked Academy (20-7), which has won 13 straight games going into its Class 3A Region III semifinal against No. 7 New Waverly (26-1) at 6 p.m. Friday at Madisonville High School. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Lorena handed visiting Academy a 52-44 overtime loss Dec. 11, although that was before high-scoring senior wing Jaylin McWilliams – the reigning District 19-3A Most Valuable Player – returned to the Bees after missing their first 10 games because of a discipline-related suspension. East Chambers knocked New Waverly (17-10) out of last season's 3A playoffs in the area round, 74-64, before losing to Diboll in a Region III quarterfinal.
The Bees breezed into the fourth round by overwhelming No. 17 Franklin 69-47 last Saturday in Lorena, finally getting past the Region III quarterfinals after close third-round defeats against Crockett in 2019 and 2020. Academy's boys basketball program had not advanced beyond the third round since the Bees captured the 2A state championship in 2002.
Although Academy was excited to overcome that previously frustrating obstacle, Mraz made it clear that the Bees aren't satisfied simply to have reached the regional semifinals.
“There is no satisfaction or any of that,” said Mraz, Academy's leading rebounder. “I mean, it's cool, first time since 2002 and all, but that's not what we're worried about.”
Senior shooting guard Jerry Cephus agreed.
“That's not our goal. We want the bigger picture, the end goal,” he said, alluding to winning the state championship. “I think that us getting past that (regional quarterfinal) step, we're just one step closer to our goal that we've been wanting for a very long time. We're just taking it one game at a time.”
Holt has a strong sense that his veteran, balanced team “isn't just happy to be here,” as the saying goes.
“I don't think that's really a problem with these guys. These guys have high expectations of how we wanted this season to look, and that started at the end of last season,” Holt said. “Obviously we wanted to get past that third round, but we also had hopes and dreams of going even further. These guys have put in a ton of work, so this is the point of the season where all that work is going to lead to us having success. We're in one of the deepest regions. If you're still playing, you're a really good team.”
Gaining a 14th straight win won't be easy for the Bees. District 23-3A champion New Waverly – which won its first league title since 2010 – has outscored opponents this season by an average of 73-43, and the Bulldogs' playoff wins over Hempstead, Huntington and No. 21 Hitchcock have come by an average of 26.3 points.
High-scoring junior guard Sebastine Amaro is New Waverly's top offensive weapon, having made 83 3-point baskets. He's averaging 20.7 points overall and 27.3 in the playoffs, along with a team-best 3.9 steals. Sophomore forward Joe Bryant (15.9 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) is an inside force who shoots 61.1 percent from 2-point range. He'll likely battle in the low post with Tanner Rambeau, Academy's 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior power forward.
The Bulldogs of head coach Melvin Williams have two steady senior guards in Cameron Austin (10.4 points, 6.8 assists, 2.5 steals per game) and Cameron Bell (8.8 points per game).
“Someone was saying, 'Who do you compare this team to?' And I said, 'Well, they're probable more comparable to us because they've got multiple guys who can score and they play really good defense.' That's how I view us as a team, so that's probably a good comparison,” Holt said about New Waverly. “Obviously they play a different style. They don't really pick up full-court (defensively), but they're going to put pressure on you in the half-court and they're going to send double-teams at you every once in a while.
“They're big. That's one of the big things. They start five guys over 6 feet and three guys over 6-3, 6-4. So they're going to have us in size, but we've got some height and we've gone up against teams that have size. We just have to focus on little things like blocking out and keeping them off the boards. If we do that, I think we'll put ourselves in good position.”
The 6-foot, 198-pound Franklin (14.3 points per game), who leads Academy in assists and steals and ranks second to McWilliams (15.2) in scoring, said the Bees are fully aware of New Waverly's skill but that they must focus on executing their own plan of attack.
“It's definitely more about playing our own game. If we play our own game, play how we want to play, play as fast as we want to play and we control the pace, we'll win any game that they put in front of us,” Franklin said. “I'd say they're fairly good – really good. I'm looking forward to this game. This is the game that we live for.”
Added Cephus about the matchup with talented scorer Amaro and New Waverly: “They have length and they're big guys, so we're going to have to outhustle them and play solid defense. I think we're going to have to stop No. 15 (Amaro).”
Holt said his Bees must strike a balance between playing their own style – up-tempo offense with plenty of layups and 3-point shots along with active, turnover-producing defense – and coming up with ways to negate or at least limit what New Waverly does best.
“I think it's a little bit of both of those. For us to be successful, we have to play a certain style and we have to execute what we want to do and kind of impose our game onto the other team, which is easier said than done sometimes,” Holt said. “But we need to know, 'What are they trying to do? What is their best attack?' And we want to try to neutralize that. If we can take away their best threat, maybe their second-best threat and make their third-best player or option try to beat us, I think that gives us an advantage. And I'm sure they're probably trying to do the same thing.”
Having guided Academy to a three-season district record of 39-1 and three consecutive 19-3A championships, Holt is preparing the Bees for their 10th playoff game in the three seasons, which have produced 75 total wins. He kept Academy's season moving forward despite a frustrating 3-6 start that included losses – most of them close – to 5A Liberty Hill, 4A Burnet and China Spring, 3A No. 2 Brock, Lorena and 2A No. 1 Ben Wheeler Martin's Mill
“I think that was huge, because it showed the guys what they needed to get better at. And it also developed an appreciation of how valuable Jaylin is to the team,” Holt said. “Any guy you take off the team is going to affect you one way or another, but he was MVP of the district for a reason last year. He's so important on both ends of the floor – a great defensive player and a great offensive player.
“At the end of the day, those guys had to learn that, 'I've got to be better at this. I've got to be better at this.' Good teams are going to expose your flaws. If we had played teams that we are 30 or 40 points better than all through non-district, I don't think we would be as good as we are now. We want make sure we're challenged, because that's how you get better. When I made the schedule we assumed Jaylin was going to be there and I thought we might win a few more games, but I think it made us the team we are right now. You can't really go back and change anything. You've just got to adjust on the fly and try to make the best out of the situation.”
Said Mraz about Academy's grueling non-district stretch: “It was a quick adjustment straight from football to playing the top-ranked teams in the state. We needed it, though. That instantly set the tone, because we hate losing. We got that taste in our mouth and it was like, 'All right, we've got to work harder. No more of that.'”
Cephus said it was the Bees' 63-51 loss to Brock on Nov. 24 in Cleburne that especially bothered them.
“That game had us hot. I don't think we ever want to lose like that to a team we know we could have beaten,” he said. “They just beat us in all cylinders on the basketball court. They beat us in everything that night.”
McWilliams made his season debut Dec. 18 in a home win against Hearne, and Academy's only loss since then was 77-74 in overtime at home against 4A state-ranked regional quarterfinalist Waco La Vega on Jan. 5. The Bees' closest 19-3A game was a seven-point win at Cameron Yoe on Jan. 12.
Seniors Mraz and Cephus credited Holt for helping Academy keep its season on the rails.
“Honestly, I think we all just respect him too much to not listen to what he has to say,” Mraz said. “He's been here for years and he obviously knows what he's doing, so we really just shut up and listen.”
Said Cephus: “It's always cool, calm and collected with him. Coach Holt, he trusts us and lets us play basketball. I feel like if we're able to play our game of basketball, we can beat anyone because we're not trying to do something that we're not used to.”
When the Bumblebees play their regional semifinal Friday night, Mraz knows to expect ample crowd support as Academy fans convene to watch the boys team compete in its first fourth-round playoff game in two decades.
“Luckily we've got a small town behind us. I mean, it's not hard to round up the whole town. We're all within 6 miles of each other,” Mraz said. “I'm thankful for it. It definitely boosts us in games when the crowd's going crazy behind us."