There have been multiple times already this season, Seven Lakes coach Shannon Heston said, that his team has been mistaken for a junior varsity team whenever it walks into a gym.
Joke’s on everyone else.
The Spartans are indeed an undersized bunch. They lack the marquee names and elite playmaking of past years. Still, despite returning no starters and just two players from last year’s team, Seven Lakes is 4-1 during this early part of the season, including an impressive win over regional power Alief Taylor last week.
“We’re not intimidating coming into a gym, but we outwork teams,” Heston said. “This team has been such a joy to coach because they show up every day, they work hard and they hold each other accountable. It’s been fun watching these guys grow up in what is supposed to be a ‘rebuilding’ year, but we like to say we’re reloading.”
Wins for Seven Lakes are going to have to come like Saturday’s against Fulshear.
The Spartans had four players score five or more points. They hit 10 of 21 3-pointers. They showed off quality depth; returners Johnny Miller, a junior guard, and Kyle Holman, a senior guard, anchor the starting lineup, while sharpshooting junior Morris White and versatile senior Nick Conklin pace the way for the reserves.
Defensively, however, is where Seven Lakes hangs its hat. The Spartans forced 24 turnovers and held Fulshear to 37 points. Only one team this season has scored more than 48 points against the Spartans. That was Aldine Davis in the season-opener.
Seven Lakes is well-coached and fundamentally sound. What it lacks in star power, it makes up for in executing the basics. Simple things like getting hands up whenever their man catches the ball or jumping to the ball on a pass don’t elude players’ attention.
“We like to play hard. We hustle,” Miller said. “When people sleep on us, that’s when we put the foot on the gas pedal. We like to get up into guys early, press, get up on teams early and just see how it goes from there.”
Prior to the start of the season, Miller and Holman often talked about what needed to be done to keep the Spartans going.
“It starts in practice,” Miller said. “It’s about making sure the team’s right. Making sure no one’s slacking off or making jokes. We have to work hard every day and prepare hard for the next opponent. If we play as a team, we know we can get where we need to go.”
Seven Lakes has made 11 consecutive playoff appearances. No. 12 is dependent upon Miller’s and Holman’s leadership, a demanding task for two players who were role players on last year’s team.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Holman said “You always want to build off success that’s already been established. The idea is to keep getting better and go beyond. So, we have to make sure the dudes that are coming up understand the tradition of always winning, playing hard and playing defense.”
Holman said he has had to adjust to knowing when and where to get his shots. Open looks don’t come freely anymore.
The 6-foot-1 Miller said assuming more ballhandling duties — he played backup point guard against Fulshear — has been daunting.
For both, Heston said, the challenge has come in simply not trying to do too much.
“It was hard for them early, because they thought they had to be (former Spartans star) Darius (Alford) or someone like that from last year,” Heston said. “They’re not that type of player. I think since they thought we were losing a 20-point-per-game scorer, that one of them needed to be that person. But what this team needs is just to hunt great shots as a unit. They just have to be selfless like that. Holding guys accountable to what a great shot is is where I’ve seen more growth from those two guys as leaders.”
Heston said he has not had a “reloading” situation like this year’s. That’s where culture comes into play.
Heston admitted he and his coaching staff came to the realization that former program greats like Alford, Trey Pinkney, Princeton Onwas and Kameron McGusty don’t just walk around the hallways every year.
“We look different from a size and strength standpoint,” the coach said.
But it’s because of what’s already been built at Seven Lakes — regular regional final appearances under Dan Miller earlier this decade, and consistent district title contention and playoff stints under Heston the previous four years — that makes a difference.
“These kids don’t know anything else but winning,” Heston said. “They’ll take the floor against teams that are supposed to beat us and supposed to be better than us, and they don’t understand why that’s the case. From their freshman year until they’re seniors, they expect to take the floor and win. That mindset is so powerful.”
For Miller and Holman, it’s about going beyond. The Spartans have not made it past the first round of the playoffs since the 2014-15 season.
Players and coaches hear about how Seven Lakes’ postseason streak will come to a halt this year. They hear about how there is supposedly not enough in the tank to sustain winning.
But their focus, Holman said, is making a deep playoff run, not just making the playoffs.
“We tell our guys, other people outside this program don’t expect a lot from you. And they take that personally,” Heston said. “They don’t understand why a program that’s been as successful as ours is supposed to have a down step on their watch. They feel upset and disrespected by that type of stuff, and they play with a chip on their shoulder.”