FORT WORTH, Texas -- The face of North Crowley's 2007-08 Texas Class 5A boys' state basketball championship is often just a satellite dish or cable box away.
There's Oklahoma freshman guard Willie Warren scoring 17 against Texas and another 17 against Baylor. He's the No. 2 scorer on the No. 4 team in the country.
The guys back home follow Warren every time he's on TV, still talk or text with him frequently, and hang out with him when he's in town. But the '08-09 Panthers spend most of their time trying to prove they can repeat last season's success.
"We're almost there," senior point guard Nathan Tigner said, holding a thumb and index finger close together, squinting for effect.
The '07-08 season was a magical one for a program that has been among the state's best since the school opened 11 years ago. North Crowley suffered only an early-season loss to Fort Bend Hightower. In a Region I semifinal that attracted about 3,000 spectators to Moody Coliseum in Abilene, second-ranked North Crowley knocked off top-ranked Duncanville 61-57, the first time in two years that Duncanville had lost to a Texas team.
At the state tournament in Austin, the Panthers defeated San Antonio Madison and Fort Bend Dulles to finish 38-1, and Warren was named the most valuable player of the championship game. A banner in the North Crowley gym celebrates that the Panthers were the consensus public school national champions.
Warren, who spent about a month enrolled at Oak Hill Academy but returned home before the season began, was one of three senior starters last season, along with center/forward P.J. Colley and guard T.J. Franklin. But wing guard Tony McGilveary, one of two returning senior starters this season, said the Panthers were already talking about what it would take to repeat before the team checked out of its Austin hotel.
Coach Tommy Brakel didn't take much time to celebrate, either. Terry Waldrop, who coached Fort Worth's Texas Wesleyan University to the NAIA Division I title in 2006, told him during a summer clinic that he was about to embark on the most challenging season of his coaching career.
"In a sense, it has," said Brakel, North Crowley's coach since the program began. It seems the players haven't been able to walk down a hall without hearing that they're expected to make a return trip to Austin.
"As a 38-year-old man, you just smile and keep it in perspective; they mean well," Brakel said. "But for a kid, it's the weight of the school on their shoulders."
The Panthers played a difficult pre-district schedule that included two close losses to '08 state semifinal opponent Madison and a 73-52 defeat to 4A power Houston Wheatley. But in completing their first run through District 3-5A play, the Panthers have swept their six opponents by an average of 35.5 points and improved their record to 24-5.
"We kind of started off a little rough," McGilveary said, "but we're picking it up."
Brakel said the players reacted properly to the losses and came away believing they could play with the best in the state.
Not that it really took much convincing, despite losing Warren and the others. Brakel said North Crowley marched through its spring, summer and fall seasons without a loss. And previous Panthers teams have adjusted to life after a star player, like the Langfords: Keith (Kansas) and Kevin (Cal and TCU).
"These guys were playing with a lot of confidence," Brakel said. "As coaches, our biggest concern was we could see holes in the team. We were continuously talking to them about how mature a kid it takes to fix the holes without losing. Until an opponent exploits it and it costs you a win, I don't think it always sets in with 17-, 18-year-old kids."
A solid roster was bolstered shortly after the school year began with the addition of 6-foot-8 senior Justin Wesley. A half brother of the Langfords, Wesley moved back to the North Crowley attendance zone with his mother, following three years in the Houston area, soon after their house was severely damaged by Hurricane Ike in mid-September.
North Crowley doesn't have anyone averaging 24.9 points like Warren did, but five players average between 13 and nine points a game. Despite playing up-tempo, the Panthers allow only 52 points a game.
"Last year, it was playing off Willie's game," Tigner said. "This year, it could be anybody's game. Anybody can get hot."
Said Brakel: "One of the turning points for this year's team is they had to understand we didn't have to be last year's team. There didn't have to be a Willie Warren. There didn't have to be a P.J. Colley. We can be successful, just as successful, with different roles. We're headed in the right direction."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.