For now, Bartlett is a football town.
As they enter the Central Texas town, drivers on Texas 95 are greeted by a sign that celebrates the three state titles won by the high school’s football team. The Bulldogs claimed Class A championships in 1990, 1992 and 1999.
But before Bartlett established itself as a state contender in football, the Bulldogs proved to be pretty good in basketball, too. Bartlett lost by one point in the 1980 Class A championship game, and the Bulldogs were Class 2A finalists in 1983.
This winter, Bartlett’s boys basketball team is 18-1. So has the town rethought its claim to fame?
“I think it’s going to become more of a basketball school now,” senior guard Kelvin Alston said. “Last year, we were the underdogs. This year, everybody knows us.”
Two years ago, a hardcourt revival did not appear likely in Bartlett. The Bulldogs won only three times during the 2011-12 season.
Then Shea Diffie, an assistant coach at Fort Worth Boswell, took over the program before the 2012-13 season. The Bulldogs proceeded to win 20 games and the District 26-A title.
“When I got here, I remember the first practice, sitting in and saying these guys have got some basketball players,” Diffie said. “All of these guys love the game of basketball, and they will play basketball every night if they can. They’re just gym rats.”
Bartlett has adopted the acronym “E.A.T.” (energy, attitude and toughness), but it took a while for Diffie to install confidence in the Bulldogs.
That confidence surfaced in a 2013 loss to Thorndale. In the 58-55 defeat, Bartlett squandered a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter against the state-ranked Bulldogs.
“Our guys, the next practice, it was a totally different attitude,” Diffie said. “We started going into game expecting to win, not hoping to win.”
With five returning starters on its roster, Bartlett opened the 2013-14 season with 16 straight victories. Class 3A Lorena has handed Bartlett its lone loss.
Bartlett has been led by senior James McKinney’s 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Kelvin Alston (13.5) and his twin brother, Devin, (10.0) are averaging double-digit scoring totals, and senior Weston Rafay, whose father played on the 1983 state-finalist team, is contributing 8.2 points per game.
“There’s been a turnaround. There is a hunger to win, to go get it,” McKinney said. “We never had that in our sophomore and freshman (years).”
Bartlett lost its only playoff game in 2013, and the team has won only two postseason contests over the past 10 years. This winter, Bartlett has its sights set on a better showing in the second season.
“We’re trying to meet up with Mumford,” Kelvin Alston said.
Mumford, which resides in the neighboring District 25-A, has reached the Class A, Division I championship game in each of the past two seasons. The Mustangs (22-1) were ranked first this week in the Class A, Division I state poll released by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. Bartlett was 11th.
But before Bartlett can start planning for a regional showdown with Mumford, the Bulldogs must defend their district title. Bartlett will open district play against Gateway Prep on Friday.
“Hopefully when you get to that opportunity (to play Mumford), you put your best foot forward,” Diffie said. “Your mind stays on the idea that they’re in your region and they’re waiting, but your focus can’t be them.”