Texline embraced the pressure of being defending champs and ranked No. 1 all season

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Texline Head Coach Coby Beckner and the Tornadoes open the 2022 UIL Class 1A state tournament at 10 a.m. Thursday in San Antonio’s Alamodome. [Autumn Bippert/ Press Pass Sports]

To the victor, goes the spoils.

And, the pressure.

Just ask the Texline Tornadoes boys basketball team.

When No. 1-ranked Texline tips off in the UIL 2022 Texas Class 1A state boys basketball semifinals at 10 a.m. Thursday in the spacious San Antonio Alamodome, the scene and vibe will have a familiar feel for the players and coaches.

After all, a year ago almost to the day Texline was in these same basketball shoes, and, two days later wearing the 2021 Texas 1A state champion medals.

While the surroundings of the Alamodome will be the same for Texline on Thursday against Irion County, what rides inside the Texline players and coaches is a much different from last year.

It’s called living a season with a big ol’ target on your back.

As defending state champions with four starters returning from last year’s state championship lineup, Texline learned a new level of pressure during its impressive 33-3 season.

Start with every team bringing that “A game” when matched up against Texline, wanting to be the ones to knock off the defending champs. Add in the desire to set school history and reach rare air in 806 boys hoop history by repeating as state champs.

For sure, toss in a community in love with their team and the players knowing their bags were packed for San Antonio long before last week’s Region I-1A tournament in Levelland.

None of the pressures above existed last year or weighed on the shoulders of Texline players and its head coach Coby Beckner.

“This year has been a whole different journey,” Beckner said. “We rolled into state last year on pure emotion and momentum. This year it’s more relief and a little bit of expectation.”

Texline senior all-state Will Luther is such a skilled basketball player he is up for Mr. Basketball in this state. Luther became the unofficial Forever Mayor of Texline last year making the winning 3-pointer with a few seconds remaining in Texline’s 54-53 state championship win.

Luther said for sure this year was different than last year and the pressure felt by Texline players was the real deal. But a meeting with Coach Beckner eased their minds.

“When we realized we started the season coming in ranked No. 1 it was exciting,” said Luther. “But then looking at our schedule who wanted to play us and what tournaments we were in, it kinda made us a little nervous.

“Coach Beckner sat us down and said ‘that pressure is privilege, guys. We are going to have to own it.’ He was like ‘there is going to be no running from it. It’s either you show up, or you are going to get beat.’ We all took that in and said, ‘Hey, let’s show them what we can do.’ ”

What Texline did with its up-temo style is show their stuff over and over.

Texline remained ranked No. 1 all year long. Then its two regular season losses were no shame arriving in non-district to Class 5A Palo Duro (a regional quarterfinalist) and Class 2A Clarendon (defending state champion and back in the state semifinals this year).

Toss in now owning 10 straight playoff wins dating back to last year and Texline has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Still, winning didn’t ease the pressure Texline felt. Because for now, as teen-agers in high school, basketball is life.

“The teams we played had nothing to lose,” Luther said. “We had everything to lose.”

Now, pressure didn’t mean Texline wasn’t enjoying the ride. And Beckner, a veteran of basketball coaching guiding Texline to a gaudy 60-7 record the past two years, knows down the road when basketball isn’t life for his players, each will be better for going through this special season.

“The other day somebody was talking with Willie and he said ‘We talk about it a lot and our motto is success is a privilege. Pressure is a privilege,’ ” Beckner said. “We think about this pressure as being a privilege. Because not everybody gets it. Not everybody has the opportunity to swim in it. It puts us in an elite category.

“This experience this year with the pressure of having the target on their backs is going to serve them well in life. That’s what I like. Being in the state semifinals on Thursday we are at that boiling point now. Anybody older knows as you get older there are things with more pressure than just a basketball game. But I get it. For these kids that basketball game is everything. The community runs right through them. So the best part is this will serve them well as they get older. They will have gained more confidence to take with them and impact other people. It’s a domino effect.”

Beckner can pinpoint the most intense pressure his team has been engulfed in this year during a game and off the court.

They passed both with an A.

On the court, Texline held off Springlake-Earth in a wild ride of a regional quarterfinal game. Then off the court, Texline shook off pre-game jitters before downing Jayton 52-34 in the Region I-1A championship game.

“I saw the pressure on the court hit us the most at the three-minute mark to play of the Springlake game where they cut our lead from 25 to 3 and had the ball,” Beckner said. “That was like real life pressure. I was feeling it. Then these kids settled down and leveled. But that happened so fast we didn’t have time to process it.”

The one off the court occurred when things became too quiet for the normally chatty Texline players.

“The heaviest I’ve seen the pressure on us was heading to the Saturday morning shoot around at Lubbock Christian before the regional final game,” Beckner said. “The kids were uncharacteristically quiet. I knew it was in the room. We all knew it was in the room and we had to figure out a way to process it. We talked about it and I showed them video of us beating Paducah and having success at the end of the game. Then the end of the state championship game where Will hit the shot and everybody is going crazy. I said, ‘That’s what is going to happen again.’ They all kind of lightened up and the air got let out of the room a little bit. They exhaled a bit. They were wearing it heavy and I’m not kidding you, I thought if things were going to go sideways, they were going to go against Jayton. Because Jayton is very well coached and they weren’t going to beat themselves.”

Beckner received his personal calm-down before the Jayton game from a friend he phoned and trusts for advice.

“He said, ‘Coach, these guys have done something that 99.9 percent of the population hasn’t done,’ ” Beckner said. “ ‘They won a state championship. They have been ranked No. 1 all year and they are on the verge of going back.’ Think about that? He was right.”

Beckner and his players love the passion and devotion the community of Texline pours over them. But even a few of their words, meant as no-harm no-foul, added a tad of pressure.

“The intent is pure from the community,” Beckner said. “The intent is positive from the community. But when we beat somebody by 30, and a good team, we might hear we didn’t play that well we should have won by 40. I now kind of know what Nick Saban deals with. Our send off last year to state was like Kaboom. Everybody in town was out there. (Tuesday) it was 20 degrees and cold and the send off was a nice tribute for these kids. But it wasn’t the same Kaboom as last year. Partly because since December everybody has had their reservations for San Antonio. They were set up in December for where they were going to eat on the Riverwalk. Now, I do Iike their confidence in us.”

Luther knows what an honor it is for him and his teammates to see the large crowds of Texline fans following them to away games and packing the friendly confines at home.

But they knew all year long last year’s state championship meant San Antonio or Bust for this Tornadoes team.

“We felt some of that pressure,” Luther said. “When we were playing at regionals this year we all had to realize everybody already made reservations for San Antonio. When they saw us before the game they’d say, ‘Hey, don’t lose. We want to go to San Antonio.’ To win regionals it took a lot from all of us. We knew what we had to do and they had our backs.

“We are so looking forward to state. Senior year ending in San Antonio at the Alamodome is a dream come true.”

Beckner said he doesn’t have the right verbiage to explain how proud he is of his players for accomplishing so many things this year.

Including, hugging the pressure as a tight a mom hugs her son returning from the war.

“My pride on how they have handled everything this year is more than I can express,” Beckner said. “I believe what we have gone through will serve us well as we get into that Irion County game. Now, I see the pressure on some more than others. Like Noel Lozano, I don’t sense it wearing on him heavy at all. I think Will, if he is feeling it, is really good about carrying it. Some struggle a little more. I try to make them realize they are so much more than basketball players and basketball doesn’t define them. They are good kids. Empathetic kids. Good teammates. They are good students and in the FFA. They are good sons and brothers. All of this is what matters.

“I have asked them, what’s the worst thing that can happen? They answer, ‘We lose.’ And I answer ‘And then what?’ They answer, ‘that’s going to be horrible. That’s going to be catastrophic.’ I answer, ‘And then what?’ It just keeps going until they finally get to the point the sun will come up. It’s going to suck big time if that happens. But the sun will come up. It’s all perspective.”

And, for these Texline coaches and players that perspective is what an amazing lifelong memory of a ride the 2021-22 season has been for them.

Even the pressure.

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