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A year after frustrating loss, Thorndale takes high road back to state

Ruben Briones declined to say that his basketball team will be returning to the scene of the crime.

A senior shooting guard for Thorndale, Briones said the Bulldogs don’t carry a grudge on the eve of their second straight appearance at the UIL state tournament. On Friday at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Thorndale (27-9) will tangle with Clarendon (30-2) in a Class 2A boys semifinal.

“Everything happens for a reason so I’m not going to say we deserved to win that game last year,” Briones said diplomatically on Wednesday after a team practice.

Briones was referering to the final seconds of the Bulldogs’ 47-46 loss to Canadian last March in a Class 2A semifinal. Video appeared to indicate that Bulldogs Americo Vazquez and Bradley Betak both were fouled on their respective shots that could have given Thorndale the lead … and perhaps the victory.

Instead of sulking during the 125-mile bus ride home last year, Thorndale’s players took a different spin.

“Instead of being sad that we lost the game, we chose to cherish the moment of having a great season,” said Briones, a middle linebacker for Thorndale’s football team who’s the sixth man for the Bulldogs this basketball season.

A year later, Thorndale’s hoping for an positive outcome when it plays in its fourth state semifinal since 2007. Fourth-year Bulldogs coach John Kovar said his players have not used the sting of last year’s loss as motivation this season. He described the 2015-16 Bulldogs as “a completely different team” that was “awestruck” when the players walked into the cavernous Alamodome last season.

“It was a pretty neat experience for our guys to play at the state tournament, but it was pretty overwhelming,” Kovar said.

Thorndale will return to the Alamodome with a pair of sure-shot leaders — 6-foot-6 junior point guard Ty Prince and 6-3 sophomore forward Sam Reaves. Prince has emerged as one of the most dynamic 2A players in the state, averaging 15.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.6 steals. Reaves complements Prince with 14.3 points per game while junior guard Ashton Albert has averaged 9.8 points and 4.5 rebounds.

One of Thorndale’s treasured highlights from this season was a December celebration to honor the boys basketball team that won the Class A, Division I state title for the school in 2007. About a dozen former players returned to the campus gym, including all-state honorees Brandon Irwin and Austin Falke.

During the ceremony, the school unveiled a memorial poster to honor Jeff Lieberman, the former Thorndale coach who died unexpectedly last April. The poster includes two photos of Lieberman coaching the Bulldogs and lists the years he led the team (1991-2009).

A 1994 graduate of Thorndale, Kovar played for Lieberman, and he said the current Bulldogs started to resemble a team that could make it back to the state around the time of the 10th anniversary celebration.

Thorndale has won five straight playoff games to reach San Antonio, including a 54-50 victory over district rival Mumford in the 2A, Region IV final on Saturday. The victory avenged 61-48 and 76-69 losses to Mumford during the regular season.

Prince, for one, never lost confidence in his teammates.

“I told my team last year we’d come back to state,” he said.

Reaves, who played on the junior varsity last season, said the whole town will throw a parade in the team’s honor if the Bulldogs win a third state title.

“At sporting events here, everyone gets involved,” he said. “It’s not like some (Class) 6A schools that have just the parents at the games. Around here, everyone’s parents are there, everyone’s friends are there, every grandma and grandpa are there.”

On Friday, the Bulldogs’ fans will caravan to San Antonio to watch their favorite team play.

So what will Briones tell his teammates just before they leave the locker room?

“It’s just another game, guys,” he said. “Let’s continue to do everything that got us to this point.”

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