In this history of the Denison girls basketball program, the seasons comparable to what the Lady Yellow Jackets have done this season are few and quite far between.
The 1989-90 team won the first district title but shared it with McKinney, then lost in the bi-district round.
Then there was a wait until the teams of 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06 came along with playoff appearances in each of those seasons, twice reaching the second round of the playoffs.
That was the black-and-gold standard until last year, when Denison seemingly came out of nowhere — a 14-win improvement to end an 11-year playoff drought and a last-second shot from making the region quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
“It’s been fun watching it develop. We have a good nucleus of kids,” Denison head coach Rod Been said. “We want to keep it going as long as we can. I know what their potential is.”
And while expectations were high since the entire roster returned, to expect what has happened to this point has been unprecedented. Now the Lady Yellow Jackets (29-4) head to the playoffs buoyed by things no team before them have ever accomplished with an eye to adding to that list by this time next week.
“Now they say ‘how much do you win by?’” junior guard Zachareia Sommers said. “It makes you feel really good. We had everybody coming back. Who wants it more?”
But not getting ahead of itself is something Denison has done all season long. The first step will come with a Class 5A Region I bi-district game against Saginaw (12-20) at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at Gainesville. The winner will face either Grapevine or O.D. Wyatt in the area round later this week.
“Everybody’s 0-0 and last year’s first-round playoff victory doesn’t mean a lot right now,” Been said. “My job is to get the girls’ perspective that there’s only quality teams left since we’re in the playoffs.”
The Lady Yellow Jackets enter the playoffs off an undefeated 12-0 run in District 5-5A, earning the first outright district title in program history. Two weeks ago they broke the 2005-06 squad’s mark of 26 victories and a win against Saginaw would get them to the 30-win plateau.
“This has a chance to be historic. They have have a chance to be among the best names in Denison history,” Been said.
Denison has won 11 straight games — nine of them by double digits — and 20 of its last 21 contests, the only blemish in the last two months being a 60-57 defeat to the host of the Ardmore Tournament.
“I’m proud of my team. Everybody’s playing big roles,” said junior guard Zya Nugent, who leads the team in scoring at a shade more than 25 points per game. “We love the support from the Denison community and all over.”
The other three losses are a 59-55 overtime defeat against Melissa, which is 29-3, in the Pottsboro Tournament, and a pair of setbacks at the Polk Key Tournament — 75-65 against 6A playoff qualifier Abilene and 36-33 against El Paso Franklin, a 6A team that is 27-5.
“Those losses in retrospect kinda bug us. At the time we weren’t anywhere near our potential,” Been said. “All of those are games we had chances to win.”
The first three losses came when senior guard Olivia Marr was sidelined with a broken wrist suffered during the first week of the season. But the Lady Jackets barely skipped a beat by going 17-3 in that time.
“Everybody really stepped up when she went out,” Sommers said. “We knew we couldn’t let each other down. We get mad when he asks about our chemistry because it’s always good.”
Saginaw was the fourth-place finisher in District 6-5A, going 7-7 against the loop and finishing behind Boswell, Aledo and Chisholm Trail, which beat the Lady Rough Riders in the season finale, 50-46, to earn the third seed.
A pair of sophomores lead the way. Molly Kaiser is averaging 16.7 points and M’kayla Malone is at 12.4 points per game. No one else is averaging more than five points per contest.
“They’ve got a couple of guards who have done a lot of their scoring,” Been said. “They’re better than their record. It’s overemphasized because of their strength of schedule. Their district scores tell the story.”
Junior Bless Mkashama is pulling down 8.8 rebounds per game for a team that has little size — just two players are taller than 5-8.
Saginaw is in the playoffs for the first time in three years after just missing on a tie-breaker game with a loss against Chisholm Trail a season ago.