Texas School for the Deaf Girls Upset in State Semifinals

2018-19 Texas School for the Deaf Girls Basketball


WACO – March 2 – Undefeated in 33 games, the Lady Rangers juggernaut left Texas School for the Deaf in Austin for Waco with the goal to improve on last year’s semifinal finish, but came up short in a devastating 55-52 setback at hands of 17-10 Lutheran High North (Houston) in the semifinals of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools Class 4A state tournament.

“We really had the better team between the two of us,” says TSD head coach Brian Sipek. The Lady Rangers staked out a 15-14 first-quarter lead before miscues were capitalized by the Lady Lions who led 35-28 at the half. “Without making excuses, we found ourselves down only seven at halftime using a couple of backups,” Sipek notes. TSD had a starter struggling with a knee injury dating to February 23. Compounding woes was another starter in early foul trouble. Momentum were often offset by errors resulting in LHN scores. “We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot with missed layups and a few lazy transition defensive possessions,” Sipek explains.

Third-quarter action saw TSD cutting the deficit, however, still trailing, 44-42. TSD tied the game at 46-46 with 4:36 remaining in the fourth. LHN pulled ahead 54-52 with 1:11 left in the game as a critical timeout was called. Errors in crunch time all but sealed TSD’s fate. “Regardless, the girls battled until the very end and just came up three points short. It’s certainly a disheartening way to end a season knowing that we beat truly ourselves more than we lost to Lutheran High North,” concedes Sipek.

While the Lady Rangers’ season ended on the same note as last year, they achieved far more than any team in program history establishing national deaf school records especially the most wins in a season with 31 on the regular season and 33 on the overall with five invitational titles won before picking up a sixth capturing the TAPPS Class 4A District 4 regular season banner. Among possible national deaf school records is the longest winning streak pending research.

The Lady Rangers won the Best Pack Invitational, FEAST Invitational, Leopards Classic, New Eve Shootout, Clerc Classic, and the district regular season title. There could’ve been possibly four more wins with a sixth championship added to the haul but TSD’s South Congress Classic was cancelled due to facility renovations being done over the winter break.

Sipek reflects, “I’m just extremely proud of how well the girls represented Texas basketball, the school, and their community throughout the season. We truly felt the love as we got deeper into the season and I couldn’t have pictured a better group of girls to shine in the spotlight.” Before the playoffs, TSD head coach gave some thought on the lead-up, “The run we’re on this season is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Prior to the season, we had a coaches meeting discussing short- and long-term goals for the team. One of the long-term goals was to get back to Waco and (this time advancing to) the TAPPS 4A State Championship game.”

Sipek touts about the team’s basketball IQ and defensive-minded philosophy, “Looking up and down our schedule this year and the teams we’ve played, most of them have had their lowest offensive output against us. In practices, the team often breaks down opponents’ offensive tendencies and how to defend them. They talk and discuss scenarios among each other, which shows that their understanding of the game has evolved to the point where they can rely on each other and not so much on the coaches.”

Even with talent, the notion of going undefeated can be tough to grasp. Sipek contemplates the magnitude of TSD’s feat, “Being 31-0 and headed into the playoffs was certainly not something we had envisioned looking at the schedule we had before the season started.“ The Lady Rangers’ road to the Final Four had a formidable obstacle in Geneva School of Boerne, which TSD squeaked by, 30-29, in the regional playoffs after nearly blowing a 28-19 lead into the fourth quarter after Geneva went on a strong run tying the game at 29-29. The outcome wasn’t determined until a TSD sank a free throw with no time remaining on the clock following a defensive foul called on a potential TSD game-winning shot.

As TSD advanced to the semifinals, their story went far and wide being picked up by the local mainstream and national deaf media outlets. Sipek was amazed, “I told the team during one of our final practices that they have very little idea of how widespread their success this season has impacted the entire community coast to coast. Deaf schools in California and Indiana sent heartfelt wishes of luck prior to our trip to Waco. I shared some messages I received from random individuals calling and leaving videophone messages with support for the girls’ team.”

Among encouragement and support Sipek has received was a letter from the legendary Jerry English, who was inducted into the Texas Coaches Hall of Fame in 2000. English coached girls for 43 years at four schools from 1969-2000 and 2004-2017 amassing a 1,227-261 record, third most in the according to the NFHS national records. English took 19 different teams to state Final Fours with Dripping Springs winning UIL Class 3A in 1994 and Faith Academy of Marble Falls taking TAPPS Class 2A in 2014.

“The girls and the community will remember this season for a very long time. It is rare, as a coach, to find yourself in a position where you have the right pieces to fit a system you like and this season, we had that,” Sipek says while counting the many occasions TSD could’ve been defeated, “there were plenty of close calls but any team who spent the majority of the season being undefeated will usually have a few games where they ‘escaped’ and we certainly did.”

The Lady Rangers, helmed by head coach Sipek with assistant coaches Ashley Elliott and Sean Moore, were led by 5’5” senior guard Sunita Schmidjorg who represented USA Deaf Basketball as a contributor on the gold medal-winning United States team at the 2018 U21 World Deaf Basketball Championships. Joining Sunita on the US team was fellow TSD starter Michaela Kelley, a 6’0” junior forward. Leila Sicoli (5’4”, G, Sr.), Ashlene Etkie (5’6”, G, Jr.), and Kaci Ketchum (5’7”, G/F, Jr.) were the other starters. Reserves were Janelle Coons (5’7”, F, Jr.), Isadora Egbert (5’8”, G, Soph.), Ashley Harlicker (5’6”, G/F, Jr.), Brianne Leiker (5’8”, F, Jr.), Jewel Rocha (5’6”, G, Soph.) and Jayne Taylor (5’10”, F, Soph.). Precious Schwartz, senior, served as the team manager.

Starting with an eighth-ranking for the week of Nov. 4 in the TAPPS Class 4A poll conducted weekly by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, TSD steadily rose to the top ranking virtually on strength of its undefeated 31-0 regular season coupled with huge upsets causing shifts in the rankings regardless intangible indicators favoring three superior teams from North Texas. It was no coincidence LHN ranked ahead of TSD before settling among the bottom five.

TSD was challenged by worthy adversaries: twice by 32-11 FEAST HomeSchool (San Antonio), runners-up in the silver bracket at the competitive National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Big South regional and taking part in the 48-team NCHSB national tournament (3/11-14); twice by 22-8 Waldorf School (Austin), ranked  #3 in TAPPS 2A and state semifinalist; once by 24-11 Rosehill Christian School (Tomball), #5 TAPPS 3A/state semifinalist; four times by 22-12 Geneva School of Boerne, #6 TAPPS 4A/state quarterfinalist; once by 17-10 Lutheran High North (Houston) #5 TAPPS 4A/state finalist after defeating TSD; twice by 16-13 Brentwood Christian School (Austin), previously ranked in the top 10 for TAPPS 5A before placing third in TAPPS 5A-District 4 behind runners-up 21-8 Hyde Park Baptist School (Austin) #10 TAPPS 5A/state qualifier; and champions 17-6 Regents School of Austin, #5 TAPPS 5A/state semifinalist, the latter twice conquered by the Lady Rangers.

TSD defeated three among five of the top deaf school outfits: 13-8 Mississippi (34-20, Dec. 15); 26-4 California (Fremont), 43-23; and 24-3 Maryland, 47-36. The latter two triumphs occurred at the Clerc Classic held Jan. 19-21 at California School for the Deaf, Riverside. CSD won the Bay Counties League, CIF-North Coast Division VI championships, and qualified for the CIF-NorCal regional playoffs. MSD won the 7-team Maryland Independent Athletic Conference tournament. Rounding out is 15-9 Indiana, third place at Clerc Classic; and 20-6 Florida, the top-seed in the Mason-Dixon which prevailed 59-52 over second-seeded Mississippi for the Mason-Dixon title.

TSD will have a strong core, including six current juniors, returning next season and is expected to perform well. “We are losing some key leadership with the current seniors but I’m confident that we have a few dark horses to emerge next season,” Sipek assess while adding, “hopefully we will return to the Final Four next season and have a favorable result this time around.”

The future is bright for Lady Rangers basketball. As elementary and middle school athletic coordinator at TSD, Sipek notices talent emerging, “The key will be making sure that these youngsters have the right guidance to teach them the game of basketball as they move up and build a sense of familiarity with each other.” Sipek places the bigger picture, “At the same time, the ultimate goal is for them to have fun through playing basketball. I personally like what I see with the future of girls basketball at TSD.”

Since basketball was first played as an organized sport in 1905-06 at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan, there are numerous deaf school talent among boys and girls teams that have recorded upward to 29 wins during a season, but a rare few reached the 30-win plateau. TSD’s 33 wins tops the 32 victories racked up by Alabama School for the Deaf boys during the 1996-97 season. The Silent Warriors, coached by Don Hackney and Bert Haynes still hold the record for boys after compiling 32-2 and 31-2 records during a sensational two-year run where both teams reached the AHSAA Class 1A state semifinals before losing to eventual champions (1997) and runners-up (1998).

While TSD set the record for most wins (31) in a regular season, the Lady Rangers exceeded the current national deaf school record for the boys’ category. The 1964-65 basketball team at the defunct Texas Blind and Deaf School coached by Nathan Caldwell holds the record for most regular season wins with 30 pending research on whether TBDS won any in postseason play. From 1887 to 1965, TBDS operated as a school for colored pupils. In 1965, the Austin-based school closed its doors following court-ordered desegregation.

In the history of deaf school girls’ basketball, the 1982-83 Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf is the only school to win a state championship when it captured the NCHSAA Class A state title, a remarkable turnaround considering ENCSD didn’t win the Mason-Dixon Schools for the Deaf Athletic Association tournament as it went down in a semifinal upset on hands of eventual champion Alabama School for the Deaf.

On the boys side, the Nebraska School for the Deaf led by future coach Nick Petersen took consecutive NSAA state crowns in its classes during 1921-22 and 1922-23. In 1930-31 with Petersen as coach, NSD went undefeated in 25 outings during the regular season and picked up four more victories finishing 29-0 with the state championship at the 16-team all-class meet, the only in state history. The 1948-49 season witnessed 25-2 Arkansas School for the Deaf taking the Class B title at the AAA state tourney.

Chartered in 1978 with 20 schools, and recently becoming an affiliate member of the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations (NFHS), TAPPS membership grew to over 230 schools in six general classifications determined by high school enrollment. Single-gender school enrollments are double-counted. Due to rapid growth in the state, the TAPPS Class 1A alignment has over 50 schools that are projected for growth into the upper classifications while the TAPPS expands. The Class 4A alignment has 27 girls basketball teams fielded by schools with enrollments ranging from 141 to 217. Neither a private nor a parochial school, TSD is one of three independent state-funded and operated schools holding membership in the TAPPS.

TAPPS Class 4A State Girls Basketball Tournament Results
District-Placement (Final Record) School

Play-in Game – February 17
D5-2 (18-13) John Paul II Catholic High School (Schertz) 64
at D4-3 (12-13) Hill Country Christian School (Austin) 28

Area Playoff (State Round of 16) – February 19
D3-2 (17-15) All Saints Episcopal School (Tyler) 57
at D2-2 (15-13) Coram Deo Academy (Flower Mound) 37

D3-3 (12-8) Shelton School (Dallas) 28
at D1-1 (30-11) Trinity Christian School (Lubbock) 83

D1-2 (29-12) Lubbock Christian School 65
at D2-1 (24-8) Covenant Christian School (Colleyville) 35

D2-3 (16-13) Trinity Christian Academy (Willow Park) 24
at D3-1 (19-13) Grace Preparatory Academy (Arlington) 56

D6-2 (7-11) St. Thomas Episcopal School (Houston) 26
at D4-1 (33-1) Texas School for the Deaf (Austin) 69

D7-2 (13-13) The Woodlands Christian Academy 48
at D5-1 (22-12) Geneva School of Boerne 77

D4-2 (17-15) Reicher Catholic High School (Waco) 52
at D6-1 (18-10) Bay Area Christian School (League City) 47

D5-2 (18-13) John Paul Catholic II High School (Schertz) 46
at D7-1 (17-10) Lutheran High North (Houston) 62

Regional Playoff (State Quarterfinals) – February 23 – Neutral Sites
All Saints Episcopal School (Tyler) 34
Trinity Christian School (Lubbock) 80

Lubbock Christian School 61
Grace Preparatory Academy (Arlington) 23

Texas School for the Deaf (Austin) 30
Geneva School of Boerne 29

Reicher Catholic High School (Waco) 78
Lutheran High North (Houston) 52

State Semifinals – March 1 – Waco
Trinity Christian School (Lubbock) 69
Lubbock Christian School 60

Texas School for the Deaf (Austin) 52
Lutheran High North (Houston) 55

State Finals – March 2 – Waco
Trinity Christian School (Lubbock) 72
Lutheran High North (Houston) 34

Story contributed by Robert Alfred Hawkins
Photo credit: Texas School for the Deaf

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