Mineral Wells Index
By CLINT FOSTER
ABILENE – It wasn't the way a community pictured their season ending.
Fresh off of a thrilling 69-65, double-overtime victory over Ira in the regional semifinals, the Graford Jackrabbits' (27-4) bid for their first trip to the state tournament since 2012 fell short Saturday afternoon with a 58-25 loss at the hands of the Water Valley Wildcats (27-5) in the Class 1A-Division II Regional Finals at Abilene Christian University's Moody Coliseum.
The Wildcats will head back to Austin for the second-straight year, while Graford is left to pick up the pieces and look to next season.
The Jackrabbits sprinted through the first three rounds of the playoffs, earning a bye in the first round and winning their subsequent games by an average of almost 30 points. Then came the test against Ira on Friday night.
The double-overtime battle that Graford head coach Ty Tabor likened to a heavyweight boxing match brought the 'Rabbits back down to earth, but also exhausted them. This was cause enough for concern for Tabor and when the sun rose the next day for Graford's afternoon matchup with Water Valley, Tabor's worst fears were confirmed.
The 'Rabbit offense was simply stymied by the Wildcats' fullcourt press. A Graford team accustomed to taking close to 60 shots per game was only 8-of-33 from the field, resulting in their lowest point total of the season.
"We looked flat emotionally and dead-legged in finals," Tabor said. "I would contribute that to the double-overtime game the night before. If we played them in a different situation, it could be a lot better game.
"(But) Water Valley is really talented. Realistically they're one of the top two or three teams in the state. They made us look slow."
Graford had eight players score, none of whom reached double-digit points. Spanish exchange student Luis Conde Fernandez and senior Dylan Hart were tied for the team lead with six points – the day after Fernandez dropped 21, including a last-second shot to send the Ira game into its first overtime frame.
Tabor said Wild Valley's quickness ultimately did his team in, as Graford was never able to establish much offensive rhythm, despite a well-earned reputation as a fast team that pushes the ball up and down the floor.
Even though the 'Rabbits had Austin on their minds before the loss, Tabor said it was hard to be disappointed in yet another 20-plus win season.
"We talked about that after the game," he said. "There aren't many teams in the state that wouldn't have switched places with us. Only one team ends their season on a positive note; everyone else in the playoffs ends with a loss.
"We lost, but we lost to a pretty good team: a team that's probably the favorite to win state. You hate to lose, it's sad. But if you lose in the regional finals, obviously, you've done a lot right throughout the year."
Graford is a junior-laden team, which bodes well for next season, but the 'Rabbits will bid farewell to Hart and fellow senior James Burns.
Also leaving to take the long flights home over the ocean are junior exchange students Petr Vopinka of the Czech Republic, Paul Packheiser of Germany and Fernandez. All three were vital cogs in Graford's run deep into the postseason.
"They definitely helped us," Tabor said. "They were great teammates. It was fun watching them learn our style of the game. WE only hope they got as much knowledge and enjoyment from playing with us as our guys did from them."
Despite the five departures, the core of Graford's team is staying on the eastern shore of Possum Kingdom Lake. Lucas Simmons returns – whom Tabor said was recently named District 11-1A-II's Offensive Player of the Year – as will Tabor's son, Quinten, the district's Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Also among the returnees are first-team all-district guard Tanner Hargrove and second-team sophomore Hunter Lewis.
As is Graford's way, the absence of games from the schedule does not mean basketball season is over. On Monday, Tabor said his boys were already hard at work to ensure they would be back in the conversation for a trip to Austin next year.
"I already have kids in the gym shooting and talking about next year," he said. "That's kind of how we do it here."