Usually, sneaker prints don’t last long on a gym floor. One swift push of the broom can remove the dusty outline of those kicks.
But at China Spring, Eli Stephens’ footprints might last forever.
Stephens will leave China Spring not just with an armful of school records, awards and trophies, though he’ll certainly do that. He also leaves a transformative legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.
“What I really think of, what his brother (Antwan) started and what he’s leaving, is just a legacy of success,” China Spring coach Phil McCaslin said. “I think that’s been one of the fun things as I’ve gotten this job and learning about some of the history of China Spring, they had a lot of success in the early 90s, but there was a period where China Spring struggled. And I think what those two guys did, they put it out there for these younger guys that we do win here and we are a successful basketball program. We expect to win playoff games here. This isn’t an anomaly, it’s something we expect to do.”
Add this to Stephens’ lustrous legacy: He’s the Super Centex Player of the Year for a second straight year. In doing so, he becomes just the fourth two-time winner in the past 35 years, joining Killeen’s Marvin Moore (1987-89), Waco High’s James Hall (1995-97) and Connally’s D’Andre Simmons (2007-09).
The numbers pop off the page: Stephens averaged an area-best 26.1 points this year to go along with 5.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.2 steals per game. But it’s not just about the stats. It’s how Stephens accumulates those stats that’s so impressive.
He may be a 5-8 guard, but he shows no fear in venturing into the forest and bouncing off the trees in the paint. He actually shot 58 percent at the rim, a crazy percentage for a guy his size.
So, where does that mentality come from? Well, Eli has always been on the smaller side, so he’s been going up against bigger (and older) players his whole life. Picking on someone his own size just wouldn’t be fair, since it’s not really fair what he does to the giants, either.
“I think it’s from getting to play against other guys, much better competition and older guys,” Stephens said. “All my life growing up, I always played up every time I went to a tournament. So I was able to maneuver and find a way to finish against those taller defenders.”
At least in a half-court set there are five defenders to try to impede Stephens’ path. One of the scariest scenes for opposing coaches was Eli whipping downcourt in a fast-break situation. He was too quick, too much of a wizard with the ball, to stop — it was almost a lock that he was going to score or set up a teammate for an easy bucket in those scenarios.
“Him with a head of steam is always going to be a good thing,” McCaslin said. “We’ve had multiple games in late-game situations where normally I’d call a timeout with any other team. But he’d have the ball in transition, and I’d say, ‘We’re not going to get anything better than this.’ Most of the time, he would generate a great scoring opportunity for us. Usually one way or the other. It just speaks to how dynamic and talented he is.”
In those situations, Stephens said, “I just stayed focused, stayed with my eye on the rim. My main goal is to win. I’ll try to do anything I can to win, so if I’ve got to get to my spot I’ll get to my spot.”
McCaslin described Stephens as a “three-level scorer” — in that he can convert at the rim, in the mid-range, or behind the 3-point arc. One of Stephens’ most effective weapons was to use his speed to blast right at a defender, before screeching on the brakes to pull up for that feathery jump shot.
Obviously the kid’s got a ton of talent. But he didn’t get all those buckets on sheer ability alone. That’s part of the standard he set at China Spring, too. McCaslin raves about Stephens’ practice habits, about the many hours he spent honing his skills on his own time.
At China Spring, they’ll remember that Eli wanted to win, and he was willing to work for it.
“The legacy I left is probably hard-working,” said Stephens, who signed with American University in Washington, D.C., back in November. “Just always trying to do the extra stuff to get better and make everybody else better and try and win those games. … I think I showed them that you’ve got to grind to get to where you want to be at, and that you’ve got to work hard every day if you want to win.”
Coach of the Year: Matt Jackson, Lorena
A year ago, in preparation for his team’s move to Class 3A, Matt Jackson took his Lorena basketball team to the Region III-3A tournament over at Midway. When the regional final ended and his players started to get up to leave, he stopped them.
“I was like, ‘No, you’re going to watch this,’” Jackson said. “They watched them go down and get the ladder and cut down the net and celebrate, and their eyes were fixed on it. So now they had a visual of what they wanted to achieve. And so all year long, that’s one of the things we talked about, we wanted to make that regional tournament and cut down those nets. But 13 months ago, they didn’t know what that was.”
Lorena didn’t quite get to climb up the ladder and trim the nets on its way to state. But the Leopards did reach that regional tournament stage and tied for the deepest run of any Central Texas UIL team. For his guidance in directing Lorena to its first basketball regional appearance in program history, Jackson is the Tribune-Herald’s 2021 Super Centex Coach of the Year.
One of the most valuable resources in high school basketball is experience. It can’t be bought, only earned and accumulated. Lorena was fortunate enough entering the season to be blessed with seven returning varsity lettermen, and that veteran leadership would make a difference.
Even better, though, they didn’t care who scored, as long it was someone wearing red and black. The Leopards displayed exceptional ball movement and balance throughout their 23-5, district championship-winning season.
“That was one of the special things about this team, their selflessness,” Jackson said. “They didn’t care who got the glory. They just wanted to win. Winning is not easy, and winning is not for everyone. It’s earned. You’ve got to go earn it every single day.
"I think these guys, you go back again to the adversity from last year. I think they really grew from the summer time to the fall, through a pandemic. They really, really grew. You talk about the depth, that was a strength of ours.”
Lorena went 12-0 through a rugged District 17-3A schedule, then picked up playoff wins over Blooming Grove, Cameron Yoe and Crockett to reach the regional semifinals. Jackson even managed to talk the other three regional semifinalist teams to utilize a UIL loophole in this COVID-altered season that allowed for a traditional, single-site regional tournament if all four coaches agreed.
Naturally, the Leopards would have preferred to keep their run going all the way to state, but East Chambers had other ideas, bouncing Lorena, 53-35. But it’s a season that could carry plenty of spillover in Leopard Country, even with seven seniors graduating.
“I was thinking about it, we were just talking about our cross country kids this morning, and I stopped by the track and they were working out,” Jackson said. “I was talking with Coach (Rodney) Gee and said, ‘You know, they don’t complain. The reason is, those girls, they’ve tasted state, they know what it’s like. They know the work is hard. They’re fine with that, even though it does stink. But they know it’s going to pay off.’
“All that to say, going back to this (basketball) team, they went through the hard work this year and all those returners know in the moment it stinks, but it pays off in the end. One of the quotes they get sick of me saying all the time, they always hear it, is, ‘I never said it would be easy, but I said it’d be worth it.’ It’s one of those things that a parent says, where a kid rolls their eyes. … Here at Lorena, if you don’t have that toughness and that work ethic, you’re not going be very successful.”
Jackson also praised the support of his two assistants, Rylan Gerber and Matt Hurst, as well as the direction of Lorena athletic director Ray Biles. “That makes my job a lot easier whenever you get to work with great people like that,” he said.
Jackson beat out a horde of worthy candidates for the Super Centex Coach of the Year honor, among them Connally’s Quinton Snell, La Vega’s William Cartwright, Cameron Yoe’s Chris Reid, Crawford’s Brent Elmore, Bishop Reicher’s Cody Schilling, Oglesby’s Chad Baker and Penelope’s Sean Moreno.
Newcomer of the Year: Kobe Black, Connally
At Connally High School, you should always bet on Black.
That’s a surname that carries a lot of sway at Connally. In the annals of Cadet athletic history, among the many athletic stars who have come through were Keith Black Sr. and his sons Keith Jr. and Korie.
Now meet the latest (firm) branch of the Black family tree — Kobe Black.
“I’m proud of him -- just the fact that I’ve known him since he was born,” Connally coach Quinton Snell said. “It’s good to see him grow up and kind of carry on that legacy of that last name. I’ll say that until he graduates, his last name is pretty powerful around here.”
Kobe more than lived up to his family heritage this season. The 6-foot-1 freshman guard averaged 10 points and two steals per game while shooting 48 percent from the floor for a balanced, regional semifinalist Cadet squad. He won the District 18-4A Newcomer of the Year award, and now adds the Super Centex equivalent to boot.
Snell knew Black had a chance to contribute as a freshman. But early on, he realized it would be a significant contribution.
“When we laced them up for the first practice, we were like, ‘I think this dude’s going to have to start.’ He started the whole year,” Snell said. “Sometimes, for me at least, you might want to hold off on the freshmen a little bit. Kind of let them ease their way into the varsity grind a little bit. But after the first practice we had to go insert him in the starting lineup. He kind of met expectations.”
When asked about how he envisioned his role for the Cadets, the first thing Black mentioned was defense. That warmed his coach’s heart, since defense is “what we hang our hat on” at Connally, Snell said.
Of course, with a name like Kobe, he had to be a basketball player, right?
“My name was going to be Kash, but they changed it to Kobe,” said Black, whose immediate family has a K to start every first name. “It’s because of Kobe Bryant.”
Black said he’s watched plenty of highlights of the late Bryant, who was known for his ruthless “Mamba Mentality.” He tries to take that same kind of ferocity to all of his own athletic pursuits. (He also plays football and competes in track and field.) “I loved his mentality. I try to (do the same thing),” he said.
Who knows? When the final measurements are taken on Kobe’s chart, he might even stand taller than his athletically-gifted father and older brothers.
“They’re like, ‘We want that for him. We laid the foundation for him. He has no chance but to be better than us,’” Snell said. “They take it as, if you’re not (better) you haven’t held up your end of the bargain. So they’re on him. The expectation, not only for us, is high, but in his own house it’s pretty high.”
2021 SUPER CENTEX BOYS BASKETBALL TEAM
|Player of the Year: Eli Stephens, Sr, China Spring|
|Newcomer of the Year: Kobe Black, Fr, Connally|
|Coach of the Year: Matt Jackson, Lorena|
|G||Corey Long||5-11||Sr||14.1||3.5||3.3 spg||Bishop Reicher|
|G||Kevin Gaine1s||5-11||Sr||24.2||3.9||5.1 apg||Chilton|
|G||Eli Stephens||5-8||Sr||26.1||5.1||3.2 spg||China Spring|
|G||Kavian Gaither||5-11||Sr||8.0||8.2||3 spg||Connally|
|G||Marcus Willis Jr.||5-0||Sr||16.3||4.4||4.3 apg||La Vega|
|G/F||Randy Woolf Jr.||6-1||Jr||18.7||11.5||4 apg||La Vega|
|G||Vrail George||5-8||Sr||13.6||3.0||38% 3 pt.||Lorena|
|F||T.J. Johnson||5-6||Jr||25.0||11.9||1.2 bpg||Belton|
|F||Jaden Robinson||5-4||Sr||14.5||9.3||3.5 bpg||University|
|P||Caden Powell||5-10||Jr||12.8||9.4||1.1 bpg||Midway|
|P||Gunnar Schultz||5-3||Sr||19.6||11.0||52% FG||Oglesby|
|P||Steven Buhl||5-5||Sr||20.6||11.0||4.3 apg||Rosebud-Lott|
|G||Koby Hollingsworth||5-2||Sr||20.2||7.2||3.5 spg||Axtell|
|G||Derik Davenport||5-9||Sr||22.0||4.0||2.3 spg||Morgan|
|G||Isaiah Garcia||5-0||Sr||23.2||6.2||2.7 spg||Penelope|
|G||Jacob Jaro||5-3||Sr||23.4||5.0||3 spg||Robinson|
|G||Tyler Webb||5-4||Sr||14.0||10.4||50% FG||Connally|
|G||Ty Williams||5-0||Jr||9.0||5.0||71% FT||Crawford|
|G||Jordan Rogers||5-10||Sr||14.8||3.5||3.8 apg||La Vega|
|G||Graham Goolsby||5-1||Sr||12.3||4.5||79% FT||Lorena|
|G||Kirk Zuehlke||5-1||Jr||14.5||3.6||38% 3 pt.||West|
|F||Derion Gullette||5-4||So||12.0||10.0||2 bpg||Marlin|
|F||Tomaray Jackson||5-4||Sr||15.0||7.6||1.3 bpg||Waco High|
|P||Will McClintock||5-5||Sr||17.4||10.1||1.8 bpg||Riesel|
|Laderius Sanders, Axtell; SirJohn Strain and EJ Boarman, Bishop Reicher; Ke’Vaughn Booze, Cameron Yoe; Karson Coe, China Spring; Jelani McDonald, Connally; Tanner Merenda and Trey Dobie, Crawford; Tyler Smith and Kamren Griffin, Fairfield; Averion Johnson and Ty Cruz Sanchez, Mart; Blake Thompson, Oglesby; KaiBaron Luke, Rapoport; Kyson Dieterich, Riesel; John Reyna and Jordan Landrum, Rosebud-Lott; Tylan Harris and Bobby Montgomery, University; John Da Silva, Dalton Latham and Aldo Ibarra, Vanguard; Nathaniel Brooks, Waco High; Seth Grazier and Duston Vanek, West|
Sr, Bishop Reicher
Cougars floor general, District 4-3A MVP supplied savvy leadership as Reicher reached TAPPS final four for first time in 40 years.
Slick guard adeptly created shots for himself (24.2 ppg) and for teammates (5.1 apg) while winning 17-2A offensive MVP honors.
Sr, China Spring
Repeat Super Centex Player of Year faced every defense imaginable, yet still led area in scoring for second straight season.
Arguably the area’s top on-ball defender, this Sam Houston State football signee gave ballhandlers fits while winning 18-4A Defensive MVP.
MARCUS WILLIS JR.
Sr, La Vega
High-energy backcourt presence, 18-4A co-offensive MVP averaged 16.3 points while topping the 1,000-point plateau for his career.
RANDY WOOLF JR.
Jr, La Vega
Among this gifted athlete’s myriad contributions were 12 double-doubles, one triple-double and a 20-20 game in La Vega’s 21 games.
Two-year starter in backcourt led team’s charge with deadeye shooting, also absorbed 28 charges on the defensive end.
Area’s breakout star won District 12-6A Offensive MVP award while helping Belton reach just its third playoff appearance since 2002.
District 14-5A Defensive MVP well-versed in the art of rejection, blocking area-high 3.5 shots in garnering multiple juco scholarship offers.
Developing big man held his own in the rigors of District 11-6A, averaging a double-double against Midway’s league opponents.
District 25-1A MVP stepped up his game in Oglesby’s historic run, averaging 26 points and 11.3 boards in Tigers’ three playoff games.
Few teams could keep Cougars’ big man under wraps, as he averaged 20.6 points, 11 rebounds and topped 1,000 points for his career.
In first varsity season, 18-4A Newcomer of Year provided uncommon maturity as scoring, defensive presence for region semifinalists.
In fifth year at helm of Leopards, Jackson presided over program’s deepest run in school history, as Lorena went 23-5 and made fourth round.