DALLAS -- The north side of the signboard in front of South Oak Cliff High School (Dallas) still reads "WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS." But for the first time in years, that doesn't apply to the Golden Bears' boys' basketball team.
South Oak Cliff -- better known to the locals as "SOC" (pronounced "sock") -- followed a run of four consecutive state finals victories in Texas' Class 4A with a first-round elimination this week in the state playoffs. The Bears were ousted by Woodrow Wilson (Dallas) last week, 72-60, in the bi-district round and finished 16-14.
As coaches of playoff teams across the state spent Friday morning preparing for the area round, SOC coach James Mays II said he was looking forward to sitting back in early March for a change. The last time that SOC previously lost its first playoff game was 1999-2000, Mays' first year as the Golden Bears' coach.
"I'm just happy to get some rest and watch basketball," Mays said. "We're done. We did the best we could, and that's all you can ask."
SOC has made local headlines off the court as well in recent years. The first two state titles of the recent run, won in 2005 and 2006, were forfeited after it was determined some players had their grades changed improperly and shouldn't have been eligible to play. The investigation that led to the forfeitures followed a series of investigative reports by Dallas' WFAA-TV beginning in May 2006. The '06 championship was returned in January 2008.
Last Friday, the Dallas school district announced that South Oak Cliff would forfeit its 2005 championship based on information that the district had received from an independent investigation. The state's governing body for high school sports, the University Interscholastic League, confirmed that forfeiture and awarded the 2005 Class 4A boys' state title to Sam Houston High School (San Antonio).
One of the teachers interviewed by WFAA accused Mays of being one of the school figures to pressure him to change a player's grade. Mays has denied the accusation and said he can't comment on the grades controversy under orders from the Dallas school district. The district is still reviewing the findings of an outside investigation firm.
Mays said he didn't think this year's team was affected by last week's forfeiture announcement.
"Kids handle things different ways," he said. "I'm sure it was in the back of their mind somewhat, but we try to teach them to play through. Use everything as a motivation. I believe just youth and inexperience caught up with us."
For the first time in years, SOC lacked a talented and experienced inside game. The 2004-05 winners had seniors Kevin Rogers (now a senior at Baylor) and Jerel Hastings (a senior at the University of Albany) and junior Darrell Arthur (an NBA rookie after two seasons at Kansas). The 2005-06 team boasted seniors Arthur and Ronnie Morgan (first Louisiana Tech, now Texas A&M-Commerce) and sophomore J'Mison Morgan (a freshman at UCLA). J'Mison Morgan and Brandon Jones (two-year Western Texas College) were the primary inside threats on the 2006-07 and '07-08 teams.
The Bears lost five seniors who are now on college rosters. Three are basketball players: Morgan, Jones and guard Ty Shaw (two-year Richland College in Dallas). Two are major college football players: 6-foot-4 power forward Jacquies Smith, a defensive end at Missouri, and 6-0 guard Demetrius Fields, a wide receiver at Northwestern.
"With that," Mays said, "we knew it was going to be tough this year."
Mike Kunstadt is the publisher of the Texas Hoops recruiting newsletter and operates offseason high school tournaments. Kunstadt, who previously coached at Texas high schools for 20 years, observed at one of his fall events that SOC was in for a different season.
"You could tell they had some nice athletes," Kunstadt said. "But as far as the type of players they've had, they were definitely lacking in talent."
The '08-09 Golden Bears could still move the ball up the court in a hurry and score from the outside thanks to 5-11 senior guard Princeton Andrews, 6-0 senior guard Dequall Wynn, 6-3 junior swingman Justin Taylor and 5-8 senior sixth man Nick Bell. Junior guard David Shepherd-Dykes came from California midway through the year and filled multiple roles.
But the top inside players were sophomores with few minutes coming into the year: 6-6 Kenneth Hall and 6-5 Devin Carter. Hall developed into a starter by midseason.
The Golden Bears got off to a rough start, losing six of their first eight games. But history indicated it was too early to give up on them. Last year's state champs began 6-6, then won 19 of 21 and defeated Southwest (Ft. Worth) in the state final.
In this season's realigned District 11-4A, SOC and fellow heavyweight Kimball (Dallas) were joined by powerful Carter (Dallas), which dropped from 5A. The Bears were swept by Carter and Kimball and finished in a three-way tie for third place with Pinkston (Dallas) and Adamson (Dallas). With the top four schools qualifying for the 4A playoffs, SOC officially finished fourth.
Mays said he thanked his players after Tuesday night's loss.
"I told them we were proud of them," he said. "They gave us all they had. I thanked [them] for their effort. I thanked them for their dedication. I thanked them for allowing us the opportunity to work with them."
Mays draws a favorable comparison between his current core and those who brought home trophies from Austin.
"Those kids also started out young on the varsity," he said. "They actually just grew up into that. So I look at this group as being the same. We may be a year or two off from actually making a serious run at the end."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.