DAINGERFIELD — In his second season at the helm, Chapel Hill coach Robert Sampson noticed a turning point in December's Wagstaff Holiday Classic.
It jump-started a 13-game victory run, which culminated with the District 16-3A boys basketball title.
"The biggest thing I noticed was that we swere finally practicing a little better," Sampson said. "Compared to last year, the work ethic is better and we are practicing harder. We came together a little more as a team."
Tonight, the No. 21 Bulldogs (22-8) will embark on the postseason in the Class 3A Region II area playoffs against Pleasant Grove at Daingerfield High School. Chapel Hill received a first-round bye for winning district, while Pleasant Grove opened the postseason with a 61-55 win against Kaufman on Tuesday.
At the Wagstaff classic on the Tyler Junior College campus during the Christmas break, Chapel Hill went 3-0 with wins against Bishop Gorman, Brook Hill and All Saints. The victories followed a string of setbacks that included a 15-point loss in a non-district to Gladewater, a squad the Bulldogs beat 73-53 and 68-53 in 16-3A play.
"At the Wagstaff we just kind of came together," Sampson said. "We just seemed to decide what we were doing as a team; what defense we were running. We still had room for improvement and I think winning only helps."
With two legitimate post players and talent at the forward and guard positions as well, Chapel Hill is a well-balanced team that can hurt opponents in multiple ways.
In the paint, 6-5 starting post Michael Harris and 6-4 backup Keith Minor give the Bulldogs a constant presence below the basket. Harris, a senior who averages 16.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.1 steals a game, is considered one of the most respected post players in East Texas; Minor, a junior who averages 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, is a polished complement.
"(Harris) kind of knows he's going to be double-teamed every game, so it's a lot of credit to him," Sampson said. "He just has a will to get to the ball. He's kind of our silent leader. He goes to work every day, which makes it so much easier.
"(Minor) didn't play last year," Sampson continued. "He's got good hands and is good around the basket. It's awesome to have him come into the game. Sometimes we probably don't play Keith enough."
The guard and forward positions are anchored by guards Julius Hill, DJ Sammons and DD Mumphrey, as well as 6-3 forward Keilon Moore. Hill is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.8 points an outing, but the other three provide gritty services like rebounding and defense.
Chapel Hill, whose winning streak was snapped by Kilgore (51-49) in the second-to-last district game, fell 71-58 to defending 2A state champion and second-ranked White Oak in the East Texas Playoff Preview last weekend at UT Tyler. The Bulldogs learned some things about the loss and believe they could've played much better, but they still have excitement and confidence heading into the postseason.
That said, their first opponent promises to provide challenges throughout the game. One reason is Pleasant Grove's leading player is senior Dustin Thomas, a 6-8 post who's signed a national letter of intent with the University of Colorado.
"Hopefully, defensively, we can stop him and make somebody else hurt us a little bit," Sampson said. "But they can shoot a bunch of threes also. If they can do that and have that inside makes for a tough game."
Should the Bulldogs survive Thomas and the Hawks, they would advance to take on either Wills Point or Forney in the regional quarterfinals.