The Gruver Lady Hounds have their eyes set on a second straight University Interscholastic League Class 2A state championship and a third in four years when they take on Hearne in a semifinal at 10 a.m. on Friday morning at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Gruver (29-5 overall) being back at the state tournament with a chance to defend its crown may be surprising to many coming off a perfect 33-0 season and the loss of three All-State players that made up 65 percent of the scoring. Gruver had to find ways to replace sharp-shooter Camryn Armes, post player Callie Conyers and maybe the best to ever wear a Lady Hound uniform in Bailey Maupin who is now making her name at Texas Tech University.
“We got asked a lot of how we replace a Bailey Maupin and the others,” Gruver senior point guard Brenna Butler said. “I don’t think we tried to replace what we had and went from there to figure out who we are and what we can do, and I feel that’s what we’ve done.”
It didn’t take long for Gruver to have question marks after a season-opening loss to Nazareth and trying to find their way through a competitive non-district schedule, however, head coach Trent Lankford says the growth in this team over the past few months has been something to see.
“The transformation from November to now is incredible,” said Lankford, who is 62-5 since his return as the Lady Hounds coach last season. “We finished that first game of the year to Nazareth and I wondered how we were going to get points. We knew we really had to play defense if we weren’t going to be able to score. We started holding teams down and finding ways to score, so it’s been an evolution of this team because different players have stepped up and did different things.”
One security Lankford had in his back pocket coming into the year is his capable four-year starter, Butler. The soon-to-be Oklahoma State Cowgirl has been the glue to the Lady Hounds whether its scoring, playing defense, or her constant leadership.
“Brenna does it all for us,” Lankford said. “She gets us into what we’re doing on offense, she can also score. Brenna is a great rebounder and a tremendous defensive player. We always have her on the other team’s best player. She has a high motor and a great basketball player.”
Knowing there was going to be growing pains Butler knew she was going to be called upon even more in 2023, and says she gladly accepted the responsibility.
“I just felt like I fulfilled my role when I’m asked,” said Butler, who averages 14.6 points a game and 4.6 rebounds a night on the year. “I knew I had to be more of a scorer this year, but It’s been a different year than last year. I feel it is more a little more fun. The maturity we’ve displayed and the way we are playing is great to see. I love my teammates.”
Butler isn’t the only player to impress for the Lady Hounds. Seniors Kimber Whitehead and Allie Sparks along with sophomore Hannon Lankford, the daughter of coach Lankford, have stepped up. Whitehead is putting up 14.2 points a game, Lankford is a deep threat shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, and Sparks defines her name putting a big spark into the Lady Hounds scoring 9.5 points a contest with 4.3 rebounds a game.
“I think we’ve focused on defense,” Whitehead said. “Especially from last year. That’s helped us more than anything and really led to us being better offensively. We’ve all just stepped up tremendously. Every player on this team has their own role and they know how to fill it.”
Another thing Lankford has preached all season is grit. He wanted his team to play with a blue-collar mentality.
“We always say we need to pound the stone,” said Lankford, whose team has won 12 straight playoff games. “We just want to keep hammering and see if we can’t break that stone. From a coaching standpoint I’m just so proud that we’ve played with that grit and toughness. No one expected us to be here. We’re not always pretty, but we’re pretty gritty.”
If Gruver defeats Hearne (33-8), which is making the programs first ever appearance at the state tournament, on Friday, the Lady Hounds will play the Lipan-Martin Mill winner at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.