Most teams want to win the championship, but Gatesville is playing for more.
The Hornets enter their home tournament with the same goals as every other squad in the field. They want to put together an unblemished run en route to a title celebration.
But unlike any of the other 20 teams, Gatesville has a unique motivation — pride.
“This tournament is especially meaningful each year,” Hornets head coach Rickey Phillips said. “I always tell the kids that this is their arena, and this is what they should be protecting.”
By choice, however, defending their court is never an easy task.
Since 2002, Phillips has consistently filled the bracket with talented teams and larger programs, and this season is no different.
Along with Killeen, Ellison, Shoemaker and Belton, of District 8-6A, the field also includes Class 5A’s Temple, Waco and Austin Travis.
While bringing in schools from larger classifications increases the degree of difficulty for Class 4A
Gatesville to capture the tournament’s trophy, the benefits are far more important.
“Sometimes the bigger schools are just really, really strong,” Phillips said, “and if they aren’t, they’re going to have some very talented athletes. So, we have to compete against different things every time, and that is a challenge to the kids.
“We’re typically going to bite off more than we can chew, because we want to play the best teams around. That is what is going to help us in the long run.”
Salado returns as the defending champion and opens defense of its title at 8 a.m. against McGregor, while Belton and Ellison face Little River Academy and Troy, respectively, at 9 a.m. At 3 p.m., Florence faces Temple in the first round, and Shoemaker plays Marble Falls with Killeen debuting at 4 p.m. against Jarrell.
The Hornets (8-4) encounter Llano in their first match at 2 p.m. with the potential to play two more times before the day is through should they win.
Thus far, Gatesville has only played two home matches, defeating Waco University in the season opener before falling to Belton on Tuesday.
Any potential success for the Hornets, however, will depend on their seniors, according to Phillips.
“We’ve got seven seniors,” he said, “and we need them to all help us every match. We need that stability of leadership on and off the floor because those kids should be our best players since they have been in the program the longest.
“Any run we make this year will be because of those seniors.”
Highlighted by returning all-district second team selections Madison Carpenter, a setter, and Kate Lovejoy, an outside hitter, and honorable mentions Sadie Swindall and Corie Tunnell, Gatesville has a solid nucleus of senior talent.
Talent alone is not always enough, though, and Phillips feels the only way his team can reclaim its home tournament championship or deliver the program’s first district title since 2011 is to improve defensively.
“We have to be sound defensively,” he said. “When we play good defense, it turns into offensive chances, and we are pretty good when we get those chances, but defense has to be our top priority.”