Last season could have been considered a “down” year for the Nazareth girls, as the Swiftettes failed to make the state tournament after going to the Class 1A state championship game eight straight seasons.
So from that point of view, it’s natural for Nazareth to feel like order has been restored this season. The Swiftettes are back in the state tournament, as they’ll take on Neches at 10 a.m. Thursday at San Antonio’s Alamodome in the second 1A semifinal of the day.
Coach Eric Schilling, a Nazareth grad who led the Swiftettes (29-9) to those eight straight championship games and six state titles in seven years, has now taken his alma mater to nine state tournaments in the last 10 years. Last year’s absence makes him and his team appreciate the trip back to San Antonio this year.
“It definitely is nice to be back,” Schilling said. “These kids deserve it. They’re definitely hungry, but I don’t think we’ve put any more emphasis on it this year than in any other year. It’s always an expectation and we all we ask them to do is play hard and be coachable and see where that puts them.”
That’s generally the script for all the successful Naz teams through the years. The Swiftettes have become a state tournament staple as much as any girls (or boys) program in the state, making their whopping 31st appearance at the state tournament and have brought home 24 state titles.
Nazareth is more used to reloading than rebuilding, so the fact that Iris Schilderink and Caroline Myrick are the only two seniors on the team hasn’t been much of a factor. Schilling saw that the pieces were in place last summer, but had to find out where to put them
The pre-district plan was no different than before, which meant playing a tough schedule highlighted by traveling to Fort Worth to play in the always competitive Whataburger Tournament against much bigger schools.
“The Whataburger Tournament in December is always big for us,” Schilling said. “We go down there and lose to Sunnyvale in that first game by six and they’re down here (at the state tournament) in 4A. We were really able to learn about our depth, and then to beat a team like Lytle who lost in the regional championship in 3A Region IV, we knew we really had good shot.
“We also understood how tough our region was and that we were going to have to be playing really well at the right time. Luckily everything kind of fell into place and put us where we’re at.”
The Swiftettes returned to the Panhandle after the Whataburger and lost to Farwell, which made the Class 2A region quarterfinals, 41-39. Since then, they haven’t lost, as they’ve won 15 straight games, including going undefeated in District 4-1A.
Where this Nazareth team might be a bit different from those of the past is that the Swiftettes have had to survive some close games to make it this far. Their last three playoff games against Valley, Whiteface and Claude have all been decided by eight points or less.
Against Valley and Claude, the games came down to the last possession.
“You learn a lot about yourself in those games,” Schilling said. “Those games could have gone either way. We talk big on composure and being able to handle yourself in tough situations. Don’t let the situation make you stray away from doing your job.
“It’s easy to panic in those situations, but overall they came together and that’s what it takes to get through those tough spots. That makes it even sweeter when it comes down to that last possession.”
This week, Nazareth has another situation to deal with, as starting point guard Harley Gerber tore her ACL earlier in the playoffs and will miss the state tournament. Brooklyn Dyer will replace Gerber, who also missed some time earlier in the season with a broken hand.
Schilling will miss Gerber but thinks her injury could be a rallying point.
“I hate it for (Gerber), but we’ve been down this road without her and maybe there’s a reason for it,” Schilling said.
In that regard, Schilderink and Myrick have been the glue to hold the Swiftettes together. They were both on the Naz team which lost the state championship game to Dodd City in 2021, and Schilderink was a freshman who got to travel with the Swiftettes as a freshman during their last state championship season in 2020.
Schilderink and Myrick generally aren’t top scorers for Nazareth, but Schilling can’t imagine the Swiftettes being at this point without them.
“They’re two great leaders for us,” Schilling said. “Iris is a good inside scorer for us and a great defender and Caroline is a heck of a defender on the perimeter. I’ve never had another one like her. They don’t do a lot which shows up on the stat sheet, but they lead our defense. They’re tough and physical and they understand their roles.”
At 6-foot, Schilderink is a key presence for the Swiftettes in the paint at both ends of the floor. She says she thinks defense first before the tipoff.
“I’ve always been told to be physical underneath,” Schilderink said. “Honestly, defense is my main priority to not let the other team score. It’s a huge thing for me. My teammates get the points and I’m there to do my job and make those blocked shots.”
Since that loss to Farwell, Naz hasn’t allowed an opponent to reach 40 points, although Valley and Whiteface both scored 39. That defense has gotten the Swiftettes this far.
Having played three straight close games right before state is another factor which could help. Myrick remembers the 2021 state championship game and wants her younger teammates to not be so tense about the situation.
“I would tell them to expect to have fun because it’s one of the most fun trips you get to take with your team,” Myrick said. “You bond and just have a lot of fun. It is very exciting and you are nervous.”
Neches (32-2) also has some tradition, as the Lady Tigers are making their 11th state tournament appearance and third straight. They return two players who played in last year’s 46-44 state semifinal loss to Robert Lee.
Schilling thinks that dealing with the outside shooting of Neches will be his team’s biggest defensive challenge if the Swiftettes are to win and face the winner of Thursday’s 8:30 a.m. semifinal between Huckabay and Irion County for the state championship at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
“Their guard play is really good,” Schilling said. “They’ve got a good solid point guard who does a really good job of getting them into their stuff, and they have two other guards who don’t miss. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense and that’s what these kids like. Typically, they’re going to step up.”
That was definitely the case in a 26-24 win over Claude in the Region I-1A championship game which put Nazareth in the state tournament. Just like a 40-39 win over Valley in the region quarterfinal, the Swiftettes survived a last-second miss to advance.
Schilderink says that situation is something her team has gotten used to by now.
“There’s always butterflies in every game I play, but I just have to trust my teammates and know we can do it,” Schilderink said. “We’ve definitely put ourselves in situations which have caused some nerves.”
That may be exactly why Nazareth is equipped to deal with the drama which comes with a state tournament. Myrick thinks the last three games have prepared her and the team for this week.
“I think I had the most butterflies during the regional tournament, so coming down to San Antonio I don’t think I will be as nervous and the rest of the team feels the same way,” Myrick said. “We are confident. Even though we have some great opponents we think we can go all the way.”