Coming off of its first district title since 2006, the Tyler Legacy basketball program is gearing up for its first playoff game since 2015.
With a new head coach, a new school name, a renovated gym and a roster entirely of seniors, the 2020-21 basketball season has been one to remember for the Red Raiders. But they’re not ready for it to be done just yet.
Legacy — the No. 1 seed from District 10-6A — is set to open the postseason against Garland Sachse — the No. 4 seed from District 9-6A — at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Van High School.
The journey to get to this point was never easy, but one the Red Raiders know was beneficial in the culmination of reaching their goals.
The Red Raiders finished the 2019-20 season with one district win — a double-overtime victory over North Mesquite on the final day of the regular season. It was the fourth consecutive season with one district win for the Red Raiders.
In June, head coach Alan Simmons stepped down to take a job at Aledo High School. Kevin Walker, who had been an assistant for the Red Raiders on two separate occasions, most recently last season, was named the new head coach of the program.
When Walker took over, he knew the Red Raiders had five varsity players returning — Teon Erwin, Matt Wade, Will Mitchell, Nate Noland and Jaylon Spencer — who make up the starting five this season.
Walker was clear from the beginning about what he wanted from the program.
“We don’t ever want to walk off the floor saying somebody was tougher than we were that night,” Walker said in June. “We want to constantly put pressure on our opponents and play with a blue-collar mentality. After 32 minutes when that buzzer sounds, we don’t want there to be no question who the more physical, harder working team was that night.”
While the Red Raiders got ready for the new season, their gym was being renovated, leaving them without a home. The Red Raiders would go practice at local middle school gyms, which Walker said has helped played a role in this team’s success.
In August, the school went from being named Robert E. Lee High School to Tyler Legacy High School.
When the season finally arrived in November, everything was different. The Red Raiders were also looking for different results on the court. And with a roster entirely of seniors, they knew that this was their final chance.
The Red Raiders opened the regular season with a 65-61 at Sulphur Springs. Then came a 41-point win at Forney and a double-digit victory at Hallsville.
Two days after the Hallsville game, Legacy was on the road against Longview for an afternoon tip during Thanksgiving break. Walker said his team was trailing by as many as 15 points in the second half. Legacy outscored Longview 18-8 in the fourth quarter and rallied for a 59-56 win.
“That’s one we talk about a lot,” Walker said. “We didn’t play well and just didn’t shoot the ball well, but we never quit. We did what we had to do to get out of there with a win. And then we got back to the school, and every kid stayed and got more work in. We didn’t call a practice, but nobody went home. It showed us that this was a special group.”
The wins continued to add on as the Red Raiders began the season 8-0. The first loss came Dec. 11 at Grand Prairie, 68-61. Legacy followed that up with a 92-43 rout of Nacogdoches.
The Red Raiders opened District 10-6A play with a 48-44 home loss to Rockwall. That was followed by three straight wins — two district victories, including a win at preseason 10-6A favorite Mesquite Horn. Legacy lost to Rockwall-Heath on the road on Jan. 8 to fall to 2-2 in district competition. The Red Raiders then reeled off eight straight wins — seven by double digits — to finish with a 10-2 district mark and earn a share of the district title for the first time since 2006.
“We started off the season with things we wanted to accomplish,” walker said. “One of those things was to get to that third season, and the guys did that early, still with games to go. And then we wanted to win a district championship. It was a challenge, especially for a group that had never done that. But they put the work in and made it happen.”
Wade, who has been on the varsity since he was a freshman, said it’s been great to see all of the effort come to fruition.
“It’s a great feeling,” Wade said. “It’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time. Since we’re all seniors, we know this is our last time doing this, so we knew we had to push harder and buy in. I think everybody buying in together and playing their hardest has helped get us to this point. Now, we have to continue that, because it’s lose or go home, so we have to play our hearts out every night.”
Making such a big improvement in one season is a tough task, but this group of Red Raiders made it their mission to go out on top.
“We just started committing to the idea that we don’t want to lose anymore,” Noland said. “We were tired of it. We just came in and worked every morning and every day until we got what we wanted.”
While posting a 20-4 regular season record has brought confidence, Spencer said maintaining focus is also key.
“We have a lot of confidence, but we also have to stay level-headed and remain humble,” Spencer said. “We’ve been on a streak, and we want to keep it going through the playoffs.”
Erwin is the lone Red Raider who has played in a playoff game before, experiencing the postseason as a freshman when he was at Chapel Hill.
“Playoff basketball is totally different,” Erwin said. “The atmosphere going from district to the playoffs is a big jump.”
Now, with two big accomplishments in hand, the Red Raiders want to win their first playoff game since 2007.
“This is a new experience for all of these guys outside of Teon,” Walker said. “It’s a new environment. We know that if we have a bad night and we get beat, it’s done. But at the same time, we can’t make it too big. We’ve done a good job of playing loose and together all year, and we need to continue that.”
Joining Walker on the coaching staff are Mike Smith, Justin Johnson, Brandon Rougely and Tim Johnson. Players are Jaylon Spencer, Will Mitchell, Teon Erwin, Nate Noland, Matt Wade, Deuty Smith, Jamarion Robinson, Jordan Benson, Braylon Johnson, Richard Kimbro, Austin McCoo, Grant Noyes and Jamal Bryant.