Gatesville's Rebekah Nolte shoots from the free-throw line on Dec. 21 against Waco La Vega at Gatesville High School.

Chris Carroll hasn’t actually pinched himself, though the thought bounced around his mind a few times.

His Gatesville girls basketball team is in the middle of a dream season, one the sixth-year coach said he envisioned would arrive a year from now. Carroll isn’t complaining, of course, and his Fightin’ Hornets have yet to veer from what has earned them a Texas Association of Basketball Coaches No. 8 ranking in Class 4A and an eye-popping 26-1 record with six regular-season games remaining.

“I knew we’d be pretty good, but having lost once so far … I’d be lying if I said our success hasn’t surprised me,” Carroll said Thursday, two days after the Hornets squeaked out a 31-29 victory over District 17-4A foe Lorena.

With a poised returning core from last year’s team that breached the 20-win mark but couldn’t qualify for the playoffs, the Hornets started this season 15-0 before losing to Glen Rose on Dec. 6. Carroll said his team, which won three tournaments, “acted like the loss never happened and learned from it,” and Gatesville has since won 11 straight.

The last six in the recent run were 17-4A wins, including victories over four teams (China Spring, Waco La Vega, Waco Connally and Lorena) that finished ahead of the Hornets a year ago in the standings and also kept them from reaching the postseason.

“We just weren’t good enough to compete with the best teams in our district,” Carroll said. “(This year), the girls have an added level of maturity and understanding of their roles and what we are looking for. They’ve put in a lot of work and improved.”

Junior Rebekah Nolte, who averages 16 points per contest and who Carroll called the team’s best ball-handler and shooter, also pointed to the collective maturity as one of the main differences between this season and two previous years she classified as, “rough” because the team had “a tendency to fall apart in district.”

In explaining how the team’s demeanor has developed, Nolte used the Lorena victory as an example.

“When games get in tight situations, we know how to handle them now,” said Nolte, who made two free throws against Lorena with 5 seconds to play Tuesday to lift the Hornets to their 6-0 first-half league record. “It was tight the whole time. We stayed calm and made shots when it counted. (Wins like that) definitely help confidence. We start to realize that we can actually go far.. We aren’t going to sit at home during the playoffs if the season keeps going as it is.”

What’s also been helpful this season is a defense that Carroll said takes on multiple looks and has bailed out a sometimes-inconsistent offense. In 21 games this season, Gatesville has held an opponent under 30 points. The Hornets have allowed just 27.2 points per game this season. The figure increases only slightly to 27.3 in a competitive district.

Nolte and junior Allaira Jones, who has 15 double-doubles and averages 17 points and 11 rebounds, provide a bulk of the points, Carroll said, and they are facilitated by experienced point guard Kaity Eudy, who Carroll described as his steely defender. Jones played all 32 minutes Tuesday, while Nolte and Eudy played 31.

“Those three (Eudy, Jones and Nolte) have been the ones to have carried us,” Carroll said. “But all of our role kids have really stepped up and helped us out.”

Eudy is one of four seniors, including fellow starter Corie Tunnell and Emma Shinn and Ashton McCraw, who present stability off the bench. Versatile freshman Alayna Washington rounds out the starting five.

“The one thing that I have mentioned as the wins have mounted is that they have a target on their back and it makes anybody’s year to beat a ranked team,” Carroll said. “And our kids have stepped up, and there’s been several games where we haven’t been at our best and the girls have had to fight back.

“The amount of focus that they’ve had has impressed me.”

That sort of disciplined, one-track mind can benefit the Hornets the rest of the way in their attempt to maintain their current level.

Gatesville is off tonight and resumes district at China Spring on Tuesday. A home game against Robinson is followed by a road tilt at La Vega, and the Hornets close the regular season with three consecutive home games.

“Honestly, I know for me personally, I don’t really think about (the wins),” Nolte said. “It’s nice, but you have to stay focused.”

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