To say that Dallas Kimball lost the majority of its state tournament experience after graduating eight seniors last year would be surprisingly false.
Most of this year's team didn't see any game action during last year's Class 4A state championship run. But some of the players gained tournament experience serving as managers and trainers for the trip in a group of 18 that rode the team bus to Austin.
That opportunity last March mixed with this season's youthful, hard-working group is the recipe for Kimball’s third trip to Austin in four years.
“This year’s team – the kids really work hard,” coach Snoop Johnson said. “Youth is the only thing that is the difference, because we have a lot of talent.”
Heading into the state tournament this week, Kimball (32-5) has two advantages over the other three 4A semifinalists.
First, this group spent an entire season last year practicing against the eventual state champions.
Second, one of the few returning players from last year’s team happens to be 2011 4A state championship game MVP Shannon Lilly. In Kimball's 78-64 win over La Marque, Lilly put up a team-high 23 points, which included going 5-for-6 from behind the arc.
Lilly’s personal journey back to Austin has been a roller-coaster ride. He struggled to find his place in this group of Knights through the regular season after seeing his fellow starters graduate last year, Johnson said before the regional tournament. However, once the playoffs began, it was like he continued from where he left off last postseason, pulling his team through arguably the toughest path through the 4A playoffs.
“He’s happy that he’s playing well at the right time,” Johnson said. “He’s not focusing on recruiting or any of that stuff. He’s just focused on helping his team win and that has made everything that much easier.”
Kimball began the journey against ESPN Dallas area 4A No. 7 Dallas Hillcrest in a rematch of the Coca-Cola/DISD Tournament championship game. An 82-70 win advanced Kimball to face No. 1 Highland Park in the area round, followed by No. 4 Dallas Woodrow Wilson, the District 12-4A champion.
After an 85-76 win over Manor in the regional semifinal, Kimball faced South Oak Cliff, which swept both district games against the Knights. An inspired game by guard Keith Frazier gave Kimball its first win over SOC, 84-63 in the game that mattered the most.
The addition of Frazier, the No. 14 recruit in the class of 2013, by transfer from Irving before the season has been key in Kimball’s return trip to Austin. The junior led Kimball in scoring, averaging just over 21 points per game, and has given the Knights the clutch shot that was lost with the seniors who graduated.
Frazier will experience for the first time a tournament-week routine that has been battle-tested by Johnson.
Johnson said the beginning of the week in Dallas has been about fun and celebrating a successful season. But as soon as the players get on the bus Wednesday afternoon – a slight delay from the norm due to TAKS testing – it becomes business time as the team spends the next three hours studying up on San Antonio Alamo Heights (34-2), Thursday’s semifinal opponent.
“Our first two days have been fun,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We know the kids are excited, so we want to use the first two days to let them get that excitement of being back in the state tournament out of their system. They know once they get on that bus tomorrow, that part of it is over. It’s fun right now but it turns into business once they get on the bus.”