By Kenton Brooks
Phoenix Sports Writer
Some teams would struggle while losing three starters during the season, including one in the playoffs.
But the Tahlequah Lady Tigers aren’t like some teams.
Desiree Phipps was lost with an early season-ending knee injury, Jhonette Cookson moved away and Randee O’Donnell suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago at the Class 5A regional tournament. But here are the Lady Tigers, ranked No. 7 in the final Okrankings.com poll and 17-9 for the season, in the state tournament for the first time since 2001.
They open with No. 3 Midwest City Carl Albert (21-6) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Catoosa High School.
“You look at the team we put on the floor and you would scratch your head,” coach Chad Walker said. “It’s not a matter of how did we do it, but how do you keep the girls’ heads up and keep playing. Our girls have done a phenomenal job here of holding it together. The tough times have been like water off a duck’s back. They’ve kept going.
“Our girls just banded it together and wanted to make it happen. They made it happen.”
The Lady Tigers take a five-game winning streak into the state tournament and little worry.
“I don’t think we’ve had time to have doubts or concerns,” said junior post Reagan Clark. “I think we all knew what we had to do and we worked for it. We’ve been through a lot, but everything we went through made us closer as a team.”
Not that the obstacles weren’t frustrating.
“When we had players going out, you can feel the emotions on this team drop,” senior forward Alissa Hadley said. “But I don’t think we ever lost hope of going to state, even during the tough times. We just pushed each other really hard.”
Every season had a turning point and for Tahlequah, it came after Cookson moved away. The Lady Tigers were already without Phipps.
“Our philosophy had been let Jhonette touch it every time we went down the floor,” Walker said. “I’ve always been kind of a run-and-gun, fun-type of coach. When we downsized, it made our game faster and we became more successful. I get comments from our fans all of the time about how much fun we are to watch.”
It wasn’t too long ago when the Lady Tigers weren’t fun to watch. Walker inherited a program four years ago that he said he remembered being ranked 31st out of 32 Class 5A teams.
“I was told when I came in that they weren’t very good and it would take some building,” he said. “I’m assuming that might be why they went after me. I’m a strong fundamental guy. I like to bring kids along. If you sit on the sidelines while I’m coaching, you’re going to hear me talk a lot about fundamentals and basic basketball strategy. That’s how we build our program.”
The Lady Tigers steadily improved, playing for the Shrine Tournament championship in Walker’s second year, beating Tulsa Kelley at home and winning the Metro Lakes Conference last year for the first time in 25 seasons.
Now, they’re three wins away from a 5A championship. First up is a Carl Albert.
“I watched them on Saturday,” he said. “They’re pretty athletic. We have our work cut out for us, but if we keep the game close in the fourth quarter, I think we’ve got a chance to pull out win.
“I’m proud of where we are. The Tahlequah Lady Tigers have had a great season. I hope it doesn’t end Thursday.”