MARBLE FALLS — Even as members of the Faith Academy girls basketball team claimed the Class 2A state championship plaque March 1 in Mansfield, they had a look of disbelief.
The Lady Flames (31-4, 10-0 in District 4-2A) defeated New Braunfels Christian 47-45 to capture their first state title in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools for girls basketball. It was a game Faith never trailed.
“We have been the team sobbing, the one heartbroken,” Faith head coach Jerry English said two days after the victory. “Only one time in 16 (other) times (this year) did we leave the gym elated. (My former players) know this had been a driving force for me for 40 years. It just frustrates them they could not bring it home.”
But the current crop of Lady Flames did on March 1.
Faith won the state title by beating New Braunfels Christian; a five-time state champion in Sherman Texoma 55-47 on Feb. 28; and DeSoto Canterbury, a squad many believed was the sleeper of the tournament, in a regional final 63-40 on Feb. 25.
“I’m in complete disbelief,” senior forward Kristen Cherry said. “We’ve been in this situation two times before and to actually finally win, it’s literally a dream come true.”
So why was this Faith team different than the other 15 English-coached teams that qualified for the Final Four and not win it all?
The answer is found in a streak.
Lady Flames fans are well aware of the 87 consecutive district wins, which set a new record for an English-coached team, and eight straight district titles. But the streak that gnawed at the players was losing at the state semifinals 365 days earlier, especially players of the class of 2014: Cherry, Juliette Fisher and Joanna Piatek.
Faith lost to Sherman Texoma 46-43 that day to end a shot at the state title. The Lady Flames were 16 of 37 from the foul line.
“The reason being we gave that game away,” English said. “It’s so easy to think that if we shoot 50 percent on free throws, we win by 10. We did everything in that game to beat Texoma. We just did not take care of business at the line. Last year, we were in a pile after that game. (This year’s seniors) basically said this was not going to happen this year. They were going to complete the task.”
In the 55-47 win against Texoma on Feb. 28, the Lady Flames made 8 of 9 foul shots in the final 6 minutes. As a team, they were 18 of 30. Against NBC, Faith was 12 of 16 in the final stanza, including 8 of 10 in the last 90 seconds, to preserve the victory. In all, the Lady Flames were 23 of 32 from the charity line.
Even when NBC had trimmed the lead to 46-45 and Piatek was fouled with a second left, English recalled the Lady Flame walking to the free throw line and smiling at her teammates.
“I said, ‘This is over,'” he recalled thinking.
Sure enough, Piatek made the first one and missed the second, which forced NBC to rebound the miss and time expired immediately.
“The week before this, literally all we did was shoot free throws,” Cherry said. “We’d shoot 10 free throws, 10 free throws until we shot a hundred, so we trained big-time for this. So I felt prepared.”
In short, the Lady Flames minimized their mistakes, didn’t dwell on things that didn’t go their way, and took advantage of their opportunities to close out an opponent either by getting to the foul line, being smart with the basketball, or scoring when they had a wide-open look.
Another factor was the players were simply a year older and were not in awe of an opponent, English said, adding his squad may not have believed they were good enough to defeat Texoma a year ago.
This time, when the Eagles took a 38-37 lead with 5:50 left, the Lady Flames responded by going on an 18-11 run to close them out.
When NBC trimmed the deficit to a single possession in the title game, Faith responded with a basket.
To English, his players picked up their defensive intensity and recommitted themselves to that end of the floor when the games got close.
Piatek recalled telling Fisher they had been preparing for those moments for a long time, and they knew how to block out and rebound.
“The difference between winning and losing is pretty minuscule,” English said. “When you take two evenly matched teams, the winner is going to be the one that does a few more things than the other.”
But the biggest factor of all is simply this Lady Flames squad was the most mentally-tough team English guided to the state tournament. Where other Faith teams couldn’t quite win a close contest in the final seconds, this one looked forward to getting on the foul line or forcing the opponent to chase them with the ball.
Junior guard Taylor Denton was 10 of 11 from the foul line in the win against Texoma. English said no player was more eager to get on the free-throw line than Denton. And he felt the same way about facing NBC.
“I’m almost pleased that game was that close,” he said. “I think everyone who was there got a chance to see the physical and mental toughness of this team.”
With the state title, the Lady Flames joined the 1993-94 Dripping Springs Lady Tigers as the only two teams to win state championships for English. He also is the only Highland Lakes coach to capture University Interscholastic League and a Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools state titles.
“I am more proud of this group than I was the ’94 team,” he said. “I just think early in the season, we did it with smoke and mirrors. The last part, we did it with just guts. And we just played great. I’m so proud.”
“It’s so surreal, it’s so awesome,” Piatek said. “I couldn’t dream of a better way to end my basketball career than with this group of girls I love so much. We worked so hard, we’ve just been so blessed.”
The English Book
1,130 career victories
87 consecutive district wins, which set a new record for an English-coached team. The other was 77 consecutive district wins Sweeny posted in the 1960s-1970s when he coached there.
8 straight district titles, which set a new record for an English-coached team. The other was by Sweeny with 7.
2 state championships: 2013-2014 Faith Academy Lady Flames and the 1993-94 Dripping Springs Lady Tigers