Finding an identity: Nazareth hits its stride heading into state tournament
The Nazareth Swifts celebrate after beating New Home for the Region I-1A title last Saturday. Nazareth will make its third straight appearance at the UIL Class 1A state tournament that begins Thursday. [Mackenzie Teal/ Press Pass Sports]
Many folks questioned if the Nazareth Swifts were going to have the firepower to make a return trip to San Antonio.
A year later, here the Swifts are, hushing their naysayers by making a third straight appearance at the UIL Class 1A state tournament when they tip-off against La Rue La Poynor in a semifinal at 8:30 a.m., at the Alamodome on Thursday.
Since losing a heart-wrenching buzzer beating loss to Jayton in last year’s semifinal matchup with Jayton, questions surrounded the Nazareth Swifts. Many of which revolved around losing the four-year starter, and reigning Class 1A Player of the Year, Jake Gerber, who now suits up for West Texas A&M.
“We knew there was a lot that had to happen for this team to be successful again,” said Taylor Schulte, who is 83-25 in three seasons as the Nazareth head coach. “We knew we had the talent and kids that were willing to work hard to do it.”
This year’s success hasn’t been easy for Schulte nor his team. There have been plenty of bumps in the road with new faces, and a new style of play. Nazareth experienced growing pains during the early portion of the schedule.
Rock bottom came at the Martin’s Mill tournament over the Christmas break when the Swifts went on a nasty six-game losing skid.
But Schulte knew if his team didn’t give up, they could perceiver.
“The Martin’s Mill tournament and the Nazareth tournament really set up our season up for success,” Schulte said. “In a four-game stretch, we played talented teams in Gruver, Shallowater, Childress, and Franklin. We took some beatings, but at the same time we played well and we got tougher for it.”
Speaking of tough, districts don’t get much harder than District 3-1A. Nazareth’s district boasted preseason favorite and No. 7-ranked Texline, along with always competitive Happy Cowboys.
To put it in perspective of how good this district is, Nazareth, Happy and Texline have represented Region I at the UIL state tournament since 2013.
But through league action is where the Swifts (27-9) turned the corner in their season, going a perfect 12-0.
“Winning district was just another one of the steps on the road back to state,” said senior forward Nathaniel Van Dijk, who averages 13.2 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. “The team made it a goal, and we focused hard on getting it done.”
Along the journey to the state tournament, Nazareth found success through teamwork rather than one person shouldering the load. “There’s never been one payer that really sticks out for us,“ said junior Kaden Cleavinger said, who averages 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. “We each have our strengths, and we come up strong when we need to. Nathaniel has been strong getting to the basket, Jayden (High) has been playing great defense. We all just enjoy seeing each other succeed.”
Van Dijk echoed Cleavinger’s comments.
“My favorite part about the team is selflessness,” Van Dijk said. “It doesn’t matter to us who scores or who doesn’t. We just go out there and play for each other.”
The Swifts, making their 18th appearance at the state tourney, are looking for their first title since 2010. The Nazareth-La Rue La Poynor winner will meet the Jayton-Slidell winner for the state championship at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
UIL Class 1A state tournament
Thursday’s state semifinals
La Rue La Poynor (33-3) vs. Nazareth (27-9), 8:30 a.m.
Jayton (31-3) vs. Slidell (30-9), 10 a.m.
Saturday’s state championship