By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Last season marked the first time in six years that the Harker Heights Knights weren't playing late into February.
Following a 68-64 double-overtime thriller over A&M Consolidated, the Knights seemed to fall apart, losing four of their last six district games, including three in a row from Feb. 5-12.
After dealing with a bout of diabetes last season, along with internal strife throughout the team, 11-year Knights coach Celneque Bobbitt had an epiphany - it's time to hold the players accountable.
"I told them, 'It's on you,'" Bobbitt said. "'Do you want to be the Knights team with all this talent that doesn't make the playoffs?'"
Using daily inspirational quotes as motivation, Bobbitt has seen his team respond during pre-district play.
Starting the season 6-0, the Knights (12-2) have already beaten five ranked opponents including 4A No. 11 Killeen and 5A No. 17 Strake Jesuit, with its lone losses coming against 5A No. 4 Flower Mound Marcus and perennial playoff contender Houston Madison.
"It's like I told the kids, we're battle-tested and approved, because we're able to change (be versatile) no matter who we're playing," Bobbitt said. "We're basically a chameleon and that goes back to 'who the cap fits,' because you don't know who's going to be the man on any given night."
At least for the first few weeks of District 12-5A play, that won't be junior point guard Thomas Cherry, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the second quarter of Friday's 69-61 victory over defending state semifinalist San Antonio Wagner at Concordia University.
This season: 5-7, 0-1
Last season: 22-13, 9-5 (tied for third place in 12-5A)
Players to watch: Alex Caruso (Jr., G), Ernest Payton (Sr., F)
Outlook: Like their female counterparts, the Tigers are starting the year with a new coach as Rick German replaced Rusty Segler, who left for Little Elm after 13 seasons. Alex Caruso and Truman Sweed were the only players with varsity experience, with the 6-foot-5 Caruso posing a matchup problem and already garnering college attention.
This season: 5-6
Last season: 16-15, 4-10
Players to watch: Jacob Whitman (Sr., G), Sean Voss (Sr., G)
Outlook: At times, Belton can be a dangerous team with Voss's ability to drive and Whitman's accuracy from 3-point range. But, while the Tigers have an excellent backcourt tandem, they don't have a lot of size underneath the glass. If they are going to be successful, 6-foot-4 senior Luis Staggers will have to play above his height.
This season: 9-5, 1-0
Last season: 29-8, 11-3 (first place)
Players to watch: J-Mychal Reese (Jr., G), Chris Johnson (So., P)
Outlook: One of the top juniors in the country, Reese is averaging 25 points, five assists and 6.5 rebounds per game. It will be up to opponents to force the ball out of the 6-foot-2 junior's hands. That where the growth of this young Viking team comes into play. Most of last season's team that reached the Region II-5A tournament is gone.
This season: 8-6
Last season: 11-23, 1-13
Players to watch: Jonathan Bridges (Sr., G), Ricardo Artis (Sr., W)
Outlook: The Bulldawgs may have turned a corner in Billy White's second season. Their eight wins are just three away from last season's total, while Cove has runner-up finishes at both the Marble Falls McDonald's Classic and Hays Rebel Classic. The Dawgs still struggle against taller teams, but can be deadly if their shooting is on from the outside.
This season: 10-7
Last season: 22-12, 9-5 (tied for third place)
Players to watch: Devonte Brown (Sr., G), Jaleel Williams (Sr., W)
Outlook: Inconsistent so far this season, the talent-rich Eagles - which includes Indiana-State signee Brown and Division I prospect Williams - have shown flashes of being the team that won seven of its last nine district games to make its 16th consecutive playoff appearance last season. Although No. 12 Ellison has suffered some tough losses to four ranked teams, they've also had a pair of head-scratching losses to unranked Round Rock.
This season: 12-2
Last season: 16-16, 6-8
Players to watch: Royce O'Neale (Sr., W), Brandon Bullock (Sr. P)
Outlook: Fully recovered from the broken ankle he suffered midway through district play last season, O'Neale has returned with a vengeance, filling up the stat sheet on a nearly nightly basis so far. Along with O'Neale's ability to seemingly do it all, the 13th-ranked Knights have depended on the toughness of Bullock, an undersized post who has no problem battling for rebounds with players 3-4 inches bigger than him. Blessed with height and a three-deep roster, Heights is hoping its nondistrict success continues into district play.
This season: 9-4
Last season: 17-17, 6-8
Players to watch: Anthony Gonzales (Sr., G), Malcolm McDonald (Sr., F)
Outlook: While the focus will be on Gonzales (outside) and McDonald (inside), senior point guard A.J. McDonald may be the Grey Wolves' biggest key. He is be responsible for divvying up assists, making his own opportunities, but most importantly, he needs to balance an inside-out offense to keep opposing teams guessing.
This season: 7-6
Last season: 29-7, 10-4 (second place)
Players to watch: Avery Polchinski (Jr., G), Tyrell Taplin (Sr., G)
Outlook: Polchinksi is the Wildcats' lone returning starter from last year's regional finalist team. Also gone is former head coach Tim Thomas who resigned after last season to take the same position at Cedar Hill.
Angel Verdejo and Kevin Posival contributed to this report.