Chris Carroll was prepared to take a step backward.
For years, Gatesville’s head coach, who inherited the program in 2010, fought to create an environment on sustained success, and finally, he had.
With point guard Rebekah Nolte — a multiple-time school record holder — and post Allaira Jones, who was named the district’s most valuable player as a junior, guiding the team, the Hornets began flourishing, reaching the playoffs in each of the duo’s final two seasons.
During the summer, however, the pair departed, beginning their college careers together at Mary Hardin-Baylor, and leaving Carroll with doubts about the future.
“There were times when I wondered if the schedule we had was going to be too much for us,” he said, “and I can only blame myself because I made it.
“I knew we had talent, athleticism and a lot more length than in the past, but I just didn’t know if we had enough experience.”
The concerns are subsiding.
Despite a roster full of fresh-faced juniors and devoid of all but three seniors, the Hornets won 10 of their first 14 games, climbed into the top 20 in the Class 4A state poll, defeated two ranked opponents and went unbeaten at last weekend’s Jarrell tournament.
Although the accolades are accumulating now, Gatesville junior Alayna Washington knows it is a process.
“We definitely have a great team unity,” the guard said, “but it goes back to players getting in the gym and getting better, and our coach being there to do what we need to be doing. Then, if something’s not right, he’s changing it.
“It’s a variety of aspects from coaching, working hard, improving individually and improving as a team. It’s all just coming together.”
Carroll echoed the sentiment.
“When I took this job,” he said, “we had one or two kids who played basketball outside of the season.
“These kids in the program now, and the ones who came before them, all made a commitment to the game back when they were fifth- and sixth-graders, and it shows.
“The reason why we’ve had success the past couple years is because of the commitment. Most of these kids are playing year-round now.”
The Hornets’ most significant challenge is yet to come, though.
Gatesville takes its five-game winning streak to Mexia on Tuesday before playing at the Brownwood tournament after the holiday break. Then, the Hornets will embark on a grueling District 18-4A schedule Jan. 4.
Ranked No. 19 in the recent Texas Association of Basketball Coaches poll, Gatesville must contend with No. 4 Waco Connally, along with longtime rivals Waco La Vega, China Spring, Robinson and Lorena to return to the playoffs.
With district finally on the horizon, Carroll hopes his scheduling decisions pay dividends.
“I really felt like playing some of these bigger schools and better schools would help us when we got to district,” he said, “because this district is going to be such a grind.”
While the Hornets’ success this season is due to a concoction of components, Gatesville sophomore Marlee Ward believes it all stems from a common pride.
“We lost two outstanding players last year,” the forward said, “and a lot of people said we weren’t going to be as good this year.
“So, I’m just glad that we are getting to prove people wrong and show what we’re capable of.”