For the third season in a row, Saltillo enters the regional tournament as the state's top-ranked team. But for the first time, the Lady Lions are actually favored to win the title.
So goes life without having to worry about Roddricka Patton and Co.
With a busy weekend of basketball set for the Tyler Junior College campus, Saltillo will be trying to break through to the Class 1A Division II state tournament. The Lady Lions meet No. 5 Strawn in the Region III semifinals at 3 p.m. today at Wagstaff Gymnasium, while Coolidge takes on Bellevue in the other semifinal at 5 p.m.
Another Sweet 16 being held at TJC is the 1A Division I Region III tournament, in which seven-time defending regional champion and top-ranked Martins Mill faces No. 15 Zavalla at noon today. The other semifinal features No. 2 Martinsville and eighth-ranked Slocum matching up at 10 a.m.
One team noticeably absent from this season's event is Neches, which moved up to 1A Division I and was hit hard by graduation after winning its third consecutive state championship (fell in regional quarterfinals). And one victim along the Lady Tigers' path all three years was Saltillo, which fell to the Anderson County power in the regional final the last two seasons at TJC — as the state's top-ranked team.
No doubt the most crushing loss to Patton-led Neches occurred last season, a 44-39 heartbreaker that completed the Lady Lions' season at 35-1. After the loss, coach Garry Davison kept his composure while expressing the heartbreak in post-game interviews.
"It is very disappointing to put yourself into that position for the past couple of years, and to not win it just simply hurts," he told the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram. "I feel for the kids, the community and just wish I could have done more."
In the 2011 regional final, top-ranked Saltillo once again featured a higher ranking and better record than Neches. Only that time the Lady Lions were routed 68-50 by the Lady Tigers, who used their No. 2 state ranking as a motivational tool.
"We knew we were really number one, so that pumped us up more to get our respect back," in the postgame celebration game said Patton, a multi-time state player of the year who now plays at Trinity Valley. "We're ready to be number one again."
Meanwhile, other regional tournaments will be featuring East Texas teams this weekend as well.
In Class 3A, No. 15 Pittsburg takes on No. 16 Celina in the Region II semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday at Texas A&M-Commerce. The other semifinal features fifth-ranked Krum against No. 14 Liberty-Eylau at 8 p.m., followed by the championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday.
In 2A, Alba-Golden meets No. 1 Brock in the Region II semifinals at 4 p.m. Friday at Tarleton State's Wisdom Gym. The winner of their matchup advances to face the winner between Alvord and Mount Pleasant Chapel Hill, which square off in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday.
The regional final is at noon Saturday.
In the Region III tournament, Nacogdoches Central Heights plays No. 4 Centerville in the semifinals at 4 p.m. Friday at Stephen F. Austin's Johnson Coliseum in Nacogdoches. The second semifinal features sixth-ranked Crockett taking on No. 14 Crawford at 6 p.m. Friday, followed by the winners of the semifinals meeting at noon Saturday with a trip to Austin on the line.
The state tournament is set for Thursday, Feb. 28 through Saturday, March 2.