By Kenton Brooks
Phoenix Sports Writer
When the Bedouin Shrine Classic starts today, the usual names will pop up as the teams to watch: Muskogee’s girls, Oktaha’s girls and boys.
After all, Muskogee seeks its fourth straight Large School Girls title, while Oktaha seeks its third straight Small School Girls crown and seventh in the last eight years, and back-to-back Small School Boys championships.
But there could be a darkhorse in the conversation this year.
Coach Scott Hensley’s Hilldale Lady Hornets have been a surprise so far this season, based on their 6-3 record. It’s the program’s best since 2007-08. Assistant coach Bill Henneberger said he recalls it as the most wins in the program’s history since 2000 when the Lady Hornets won 11.
Just a year ago, the Hornets won four games in Hensley’s first season.
“I did a heck of a lot of praying after last year,” Hensley said with a laugh about this season’s success. “We’ve got a really hard-working group of young ladies who know how to work to get better. That’s the secret.
“People come up to me and tell about the struggles they’ve had and the bad things that’s happened in the past. I never want to ask them what’s gone on. I’ve never really tried to dig into that stuff. I just knew they weren’t very good. That’s just not the way it is now.”
Jessica Vanschuyver saw the struggles first-hand. She has been on the varsity for four seasons that included two-win seasons in her freshman and sophomore years.
“Those days weren’t fun,” the senior said. “We had too many individuals on those teams. We had one star and it was like the other players were just there.”
Vanschuyver credits Hensley for the change in the program.
“He treats everybody the same and we work as a team now,” she said.
Hilldale gets tested right away in the tournament as it opens with Tulsa Webster at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Muskogee Civic Center. Webster knocked off the Lady Hornets 57-26 a year ago in the tournament.
Sophomore Leah Gragg played in last season’s game, but she believes the outcome will be different this year.
“We’re still the underdogs, but I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” she said. “When people think of us, they think of our past seasons, but we’re just thinking about this season and proving everybody wrong. There a lot of tough teams in the tournament, but I think we can stay with them.”
The Lady Hornets’ road in the tournament is anything but easy as they will play the Muskogee-Checotah winner if they beat Webster. The last thing they want is a Shrine game on their home court, which would mean they're playing for seventh place on Saturday.
“We’ve been beating teams and scoring a lot more points than we have in the past,” sophomore Hillary Calvert said. “I knew when my class got to the high school, we could change things around. That was the goal. We want to keep improving.”
The Shrine Classic is in its 33rd year. It continues through Saturday with Wednesday as an off day.
Play begins today the Civic Center and Muskogee High School at 4:30 p.m. in the Small School Girls bracket, followed by Small School Boys contests at 6 p.m., Large School Girls games at 7:30 and the Large School Boys games at 9 p.m., where Hilldale's boys begin play vs. McAlester at Muskogee High School.
Both Muskogee teams open play against Checotah at the Civic Center on Monday with the girls tipping off at 7:30 p.m. to be immediately folllowed by the boys game. Oktaha’s boys begin defense of their title at 6 p.m. Monday against Graham at the Civic Center and its female counterparts play Summit Christian at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Muskogee High School.
Jenks, the reigning Large School Boys champion, begins action against Tulsa Hale at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Muskogee High School.