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Inola carries community's support into first state tournament appearance in 28 years

Mar. 7—For small communities like Inola, it just means more.

The town of roughly 1,900 residents came alive Wednesday as the community gathered in downtown, right in front of BancFirst on North Broadway Avenue, to rally behind the Lady Longhorns basketball team ahead of its first state tournament appearance since 1996.

Sixth-ranked Inola takes on No. 16 Douglass in the Class 4A state quarterfinals at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Jim Norick Arena in Oklahoma City.

The squad made a grand entrance while trailed by a black activity bus adorned with a majestically striking gray longhorn, marching through the streets amidst cheers from fans young and old. Each player was introduced, building an electric atmosphere filled with an orchestra of claps and countless supportive whoops.

The pulse of Inola echoed with the marching band's rendition of the school fight song as the team boarded the bus, embarking on their journey to Oklahoma City. The event lasted maybe 10 minutes, but the spirit of unity and pride was palpable as the Lady Longhorns set out for the Class 4A state tournament.

The Rogers County Sheriff's Office and the Inola Fire Department escorted the team out of town, symbolizing the support the community has for the transcendent athletes.

"That's what I love about small-school basketball," Inola coach Travis Wheeler said. "I was an assistant at the 6A level, and it's just not the same. When you go to the state tournament at a small school, it's the whole community. The community follows you to all your playoff games, they support you, they're around you and they're just involved. It's the greatest, and for the kids to be able to experience that and get to have the pep rally is amazing. I'll remember that the rest of my life, but they're really going to remember it."

That heartwarming support extended beyond the pep assembly.

Before the event, the bond between past and present grew stronger when the Lady Longhorns received an uplifting video message from members of the 1996 Class 3A championship-winning team. Their words of encouragement resonated deeply, inspiring the girls to continue their historic journey with pride and determination.

The legacy of the championship team lives on in the community, with several former players still closely tied to Inola and passionately supporting the current team's achievements — including recently ending Fort Gibson's 19-year state tournament streak.

"Some of those team members sent a video to the girls encouraging them, telling them they're behind them and that they can't wait to watch them and they've been following them through the playoffs," Wheeler said. "It was pretty neat. "The girls watched that before we got on the bus today."

Upon arriving at the hotel in Oklahoma City, the Lady Longhorns were welcomed by another group of fans, including small children who gazed in admiration and awe at the likes of Miller Weast, Addison Mootry, Brynna Wiginton, Jaci Moore and Brooke Walker — the formidable starting lineup.

"That's just another thing with small schools that you don't get a lot of times with the bigger schools," Wheeler added.

As the Lady Longhorns enter their pivotal first-round matchup, the support of their community will be more important than ever.

Inola may hold the higher ranking, but Wheeler is well aware that Douglass is no ordinary opponent. Having studied film on the Lady Trojans, he acknowledges them as the most athletic team Inola will have faced all year.

Douglass, with a 19-3 record and postseason victories over No. 3 Glenpool and No. 6 Anadarko, poses a challenge that goes beyond its ranking. Despite the No. 6 vs. No. 16 ranking on paper, the Lady Trojans will prove to be a formidable adversary thanks to their athleticism and a roster bolstered by key transfers.

The mystery behind Douglass' low ranking has recently become clear.

Unbeknownst to Wheeler and other Class 4A coaches across the state, three starters — Kiara Smith, Jordyn Anderson and Sarenity Taylor — joined the Lady Trojans via transfer, bringing a wealth of experience from their time at Harding Charter Prep, including a 2023 Class 4A state tournament appearance.

Brianna Jones also transferred from the Lady Eagles, meaning 33.3% of Douglass' roster consists of former HCP players. Without those contributions last season, the Lady Trojans finished 3-16.

As might be expected, the quartet has significantly elevated the team's performance. Anderson leads the group with 13 points per game, and Smith adds 12 PPG while Taylor chips in 5 PPG. Jones' stats were not available.

"They probably weren't getting the ranking they deserve because we didn't know what we were looking at," Wheeler said. "It doesn't matter because we'd be playing them anyways, but I feel that I didn't rank them deservingly throughout the year because I didn't know enough about them."

To prepare for the upcoming matchup, the Lady Longhorns adopted an innovative approach by practicing against the Inola boys team, which nearly made the state tournament itself.

This strategic move, which Wheeler credited as Weast's idea, allowed the girls to simulate the fast-paced tempo they'll encounter in Thursday's showdown against Douglass.

"We're trying to prepare for a team who's very athletic," Wheeler said. "We're not really able to simulate that, so we had our boys come in. We had some boys come in and go against them a little bit on Tuesday, and that was good to give us different kinds of speeds that we don't ever see."

However, with the community's unwavering support, the Lady Longhorns are ready to face the challenge head-on and once again showcase their resilience on the court.

Inola opened its 1996 run to the state championship with a 56-38 victory over Alva. Will the 2023-24 version of the team be able to match that outcome?

"Hopefully the girls stay calm and leave it out there," Wheeler said.