Not big, but big-time: Childress overcomes lack of size to reach 3A state tournament

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The Childress bench celebrates during an overtime win over Brock in the Region I-3A championship game last Saturday. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]
When the Childress Bobcats take the floor in the UIL Class 3A state tournament at 3 p.m. on Thursday against Lytle in the second semifinal game of the day, they’ll be on equal footing with everybody else at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

Even if the heights listed on the Childress roster don’t indicate that.

Despite not having a player taller than 6-foot-1, Childress is two wins from a state championship. The Bobcats made it to San Antonio by virtue of surviving a 56-55 overtime victory over Brock in the Region I-3A championship game.

Childress (27-7) is in the state tournament for the third time in school history and the first time since 2015. The Bobcats have made the type of progress coach Wayne Parker expected in his fifth season leading the program.

“As a team we definitely had this as a goal of ours and I think that this group thought we had a shot,” Parker said. “I don’t know if anybody else did. We knew that we had the pieces for it and the mindset.

“We had the defensive effort and enough pieces offensively to get there, but then again, you also need a little bit of luck. You need some things to kind of go your way and we’ve been fortunate enough to have everything kind of line up for us where we were able to make it.”

Lamont Nickleberry of Childress goes up for a basket against Wichita Falls City during a Region I-3A Tournament semifinal last Friday. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]
A combination of those elements has the Bobcats standing along with three other teams in San Antonio vying for a state title. It’s been a developing situation to be sure, but there hasn’t been a lot of certainty about reaching this particular destination.

The Bobcats have won 13 straight games since losing 66-56 at home to District 2-3A rival Shallowater in the second game of district play. Since then, the trajectory has been decidedly upward.

“We lost to Shallowater here the first game of district (66-56) and then when we went there we were up 21 on them and Shallowater was a top five team,” said Parker, whose team held on to win the rematch, 57-54. “After we won at Shallowater, which is extremely tough to do, the guys definitely knew that we had something special and we wanted to keep on going as far as we could.”

Childress does have a reference point for making the state tournament, as the Bobcats went to San Antonio eight years ago. Many of today’s Childress players had yet to play competitive basketball at that time.

At least one current Bobcat wasn’t sure this year’s team would be going to San Antonio.

“I’m not going to lie, as far as at the beginning of the season, when I saw the state tournament I didn’t see us playing in it,” junior Aiden Allen said. “My goal was the regional tournament. As the year went on and we beat some good teams I just realized we could make a run to the state tournament.”

Childress guard Aiden Allen is averaging 14.7 points a game this season. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]
Allen, who’s second on the team in scoring with 14.7 points a game, is a huge reason the Bobcats are still using their uniforms this week. He scored all of their points in overtime in the win over Brock, picking up the slack after teammate Lamont Nickleberry, the team’s leading scorer, fouled out in regulation.

Nickleberry, who leads Chilldress with 19.4 points a game, sees at as a matter of it finally being his team’s time.

“Growing up we always played together so we knew we were going to have a pretty good team when we got to this point,” said Nickleberry, a senior. “Just going out there in regionals and getting a win after battling through adversity, it felt like we were ready.

“We kind of struggled last year when we got beat in bidistrict, but Aiden was a big part of our team and he was injured last year (with a torn ACL). I expected it growing up, but freshman, sophomore and junior year I didn’t really see us here.”

Any doubts outsiders may have had about Childress still playing now are understandable. The Bobcats literally don’t pass the eyeball test.

They’re the shortest team in the 3A section of the state tourney, as only Allen and sophomore Kaleb Mayden stand over 6-0, and they’re both 6-1. In that regard, this team is exactly like that 2015 Childress team.

“Childress hasn’t been blessed with very many tall players in recent years, but we take pride on our defensive effort and try to make teams as uncomfortable as possible by picking up things full court,” Parker said. “We try to do a lot of things similar to what Palo Duro does, run and jump and play full court. We don’t do it as good as Palo Duro, but we try to take away the key defensive principles that those guys do. At the 3A level when you don’t have much height you’ve got to mix things up.”

Allen says that fundamentals are emphasized that much more because of that.

“Rebounds and boxing out is a big part of our game plan almost every game because we don’t have that size,” Allen said. “That’s just one thing we really have to focus on, going and getting the basketball.”
It’s also no surprise that Childress chooses to primarily press defensively for most of the game. That puts more of an emphasis on quickness.

The 5-11 Nickleberry thinks that can wear down certain opponents.

“We thrive on our run and jump defense, Nickleberry said. “Being a smaller team you’ve always got to box out. Getting teams running up and down sometimes it takes their biggest players out so I think it works to our advantage.”

On paper, Lytle (34-6) might be immune to such an approach. The Pirates are almost a clone of Childress size-wise, with only one player over 6-0.

But that player is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, 6-5 Jordan Balderaz, who averages 25.6 points and 12.0 rebounds a game, and is the most obvious focus of the Childress game plan.

“Other than (Balderaz), they don’t have any guys over 6-0,” Parker said. “They’re really offensive-minded people. That matches up to our style pretty well. They play fast and pick up fullcourt much like us.

“We’re just going off what we see on film and hopefully come up with a good game plan. We like pushing the tempo.”
That approach shouldn’t change this week. It’s what the Bobcats have been working toward since well before this season started.

“We’re a very close-knit group of guys and we have a great chemistry out on the floor,” Allen said. “It’s almost like we know what each other is going to do before they even do it. We’ve been playing together since fifth grade.”

Before they even take the floor at the Alamodome, the Bobcats will know who they’ll play in the championship game at 10 a.m. Saturday. Hooks (32-5) and Hitchcock (29-7) will face off in the first 3A semifinal at 1:30 p.m.

Parker thinks his team will play like it belongs.

“We played a really tough nondistrict schedule and tournament season to prepare us for these games,” Parker said. “We earned the right to be here. We’ve just got to do what we do, be disciplined and follow our defensive principles. Offense doesn’t always travel but defense always does and that’s what we take pride in. The last couple weeks of practice even in the playoffs, we’re not changing up what we do.”

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