By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
The Waxahachie Runnin’ Indians are four wins from a 6A state championship, following a 78-67 victory Saturday against Ellison in Waco. To those who have intently followed the program this year, it comes as very little surprise that this team has continued its run, either.
The 2020-21 version of the Runnin’ Indians is built on unity and a “taking it personally” mantra.
When asked just before the District 11-6A slate began, Montez Young, CJ Noland and Prince Banks all agreed that a relentless defensive effort and focus on chemistry would separate the Runnin’ Indians from their competitors.
“Coach [Greg Gober] talks a lot about being ‘tough kids,’ so we just want to show that we are tougher than you on the court,” Noland explained. “We are not just tougher than you physically, but tougher than your mind. When we are mentally tough, I don’t feel like anyone can beat us.”
Behind Noland’s game-high 22 points, which included 5-of-6 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter, the Runnin’ Indians kept (27-3) Ellison in check defensively and on the glass.
DJ Pigford drilled four three-pointers on his way to 18 points, while Young finished with 16 points, with 11 of those coming in the third quarter that saw Waxahachie outscore Ellison 27-24.
Banks had 11 points, V’Zarion Roberson added seven and Jalen Lake returned from a two-game injury-related absence to score four points.
Sophomore guard Jamyron Keller led the Eagles with a team-high 17 points, highlighted by four third-quarter three-pointers.
Saturday’s victory was the 15th consecutive for the Runnin’ Indians, who are now potentially one week away from a trip to San Antonio. With two more wins, Waxahachie will have advanced to its first state tournament since winning a 4A state title during the 1982-83 season.
Waxahachie has defeated Belton (99-62), Rockwall (74-62) and Ellison thus far in the 6A playoffs.
“We have to stay mentally focused and stay on the same page,” Banks said. “We just have to keep growing.”
Young added the team also needed to continue finding ways to grow — together, individually and as people.
“We have to embrace the challenge, too,” Young continued. “Most people will be like, ‘well, we have to play him and him,’ but, no. We have players too. We have to be ready to compete.”
Waxahachie will now face (22-3) Cypress Woods in the 6A Region II semifinal round. The Wildcats have defeated Klein (58-55), Cypress Benjamin Davis (41-40) and Cy Woods (45-36) to reach the fourth round.
Cy Woods averages 62.5PPG while only allowing 48.6. Waxahachie, meanwhile, has outscored opponents 78.4 to 57.7 — that’s nearly 21PPG better.
Noland, Young and Banks all pointed to the team’s off-the-court unity for their on-the-court success, especially on the defensive end.
“We do a lot of stuff outside of basketball and that’s the thing about good teams — good teams are always close,” Young said. “[…] Being real close makes good teams great.”
Noland added, “I would say, just going places together after practice and linking after practice has been huge. And having a good time with each other after games, you know, just building that bond and find a feel for one another. It all plays a big part in building out togetherness on the court.”
Those team bonding sessions have included regular pick-up games at the local YMCA, Six Flags in late November, a haunted house and a particularly special community event honoring local heroes.
The three were quick to agree that the haunted house was the biggest preseason unifier, however.
“That was it. That did it,” Noland laughed as they reminisced on the trip to Midlothian.
“It was a good one,” Banks added as he jabbed an elbow into Young’s ribs.
When asked which teammate was the most frightened at the haunted house, both Noland and Banks grinned, rubbed their hands together and beamed at Young.
“We are not going to talk about that one,” Young laughed.
Noland chimed in that the “pre-scares” had Young on edge before the group ever entered the house. He didn’t specifically say that the 6-foot-5 forward was hiding behind teammates, but it was quite obvious from Noland’s comments that some teammates were better prepared mentally for the experience.
“We are not going to talk about it, though,” Young cutoff. “Those are enough details.”
Those scares and unity were surface level, though. And the Runnin’ Indians captains realized just as much.
In late November, the team held a closed-door meeting to discuss an opportunity to attend the annual Ellis County Veterans Ceremony at the Waxahachie Civic Center. The conversation was had while most of the country was in the midst of heated discussions and social media barbs related to racial injustices.
From protests related to George Floyd or racial inequalities, the Runnin’ Indians were not just aware — they wanted to be proactive and, more importantly, heard and respected in their community.
“It was really just a team decision,” Young explained. “We talked about it and just asked each other, ‘Is this something that we need to do?'”
Noland noted that the team felt it “needed to show support to the veterans who come to our games and always sit in the front row to watch us play.”
“It was perfect timing,” Young added. “[…] It really just let us know that we have to be different. There are a lot of teams that are the same, but it’s those teams that are different that are the most successful.”
Noland echoed those thoughts, adding, “You have to treat people how you want to be treated. They come out and show support to us, so you want to show support to them as well. That just made us look at each other and respect each other even more because we came to an agreement to go and do that as a team.”
Waxahachie head boys’ basketball coach Greg Gober applauded the efforts of his senior leaders and the team as a whole. He also agreed that the Runnin’ Indians needed to use time during the pre-and non-district seasons to find themselves.
Gober ensured that he provides the team with a platform to allow their voices to be heard while also fostering a culture of love and respect.
“During all of the turmoil that has been going on with all of the social injustices and everything else, and then culminating with the pandemic, it’s really just been a tough time,” Gober explained. “The one thing that I have focused on during that time is to make sure that our kids have a voice. And, if they want to use that voice, just please listen.
“That is all we try and do. I want to see their side, too. I want them to always understand that they can always express anything they want to express to me. And I am going to listen to them.”
Gober further explained that allowing the Runnin’ Indians to find their voice and influence locker room culture has led to deeper conversations as a whole.
“Regardless of how many times you say that you understand or that you realize what someone else is going through, the truth of the matter is that you don’t,” Gober continued. “I can never be African American and I can never be Black. And most of my players can never be caucasian, you know, they’ll never be white guys.
“That is the one thing that is different. There are a lot of similarities and things that we pull from, but we have got to understand that there is a difference. We have all seen a lot of different things in different ways.”
The box scores will ultimately tell the tale of the 2020-21 season for the Runnin’ Indians. But their legacy is far from written.
This team is the definition of 5-4-1 — and they prove it each time out on the court.
The Runnin’ Indians last played a Cypress ISD team during e 2018-19 season when they defeated Cy Ridge (69-49) and Cy Ranch (65-43) during the Cypress ISD invitational tournament. The Tribe also defeated Cy Creek (70-57) and Cy Falls (75-69) in 2017.
Waxahachie fell to Richardson in the third round of the 2019-20 playoffs.
The Runnin’ Indians will look to advance to the 6A regional finals with a victory against Cy Woods on Tuesday. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Temple High School. Tickets can be purchased at www.wildcatstrong.com/tickets. The game will be live-streamed by NFHS ($).
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith