Sulphur's 2011-12 girls basketball season may have ended last March, but the lessons it has taught still ring on a November afternoon in the Bulldogs' gym.

The disappointment of a 47-36 state semifinal loss to Prague may not have quite the sting after eight months, but the pain is still every bit as fresh.

You can see it as the team winds down another practice, one of the final of the preseason. The team is tired, the players gleaming with sweat as they prepare for a final conditioning period.

Five minutes of continuous movement. No stopping. No quitting.


It's what coach Toby Todd yells at his players as they complete their penultimate run, an exercise notoriously refered to as a "suicide." As the girls finish, they drop to the ground, pounding out a set of crunches.

When they leap to their feet again, it is with their own cry.

"State champs!"

It echoes across the gym as the members each finish their final sprint, their grueling day of work done. But it is no mere dream anymore for the Bulldogs, not something to reach for in the future.

For Sulphur, the time for dreaming is over. The time for achieving is now.
"We've always set high expectations," Todd said. "I thought that last year we were a good enough team to win a state championship, and I'm preaching the same thing this year."

A year after a 26-2 campaign, with point guard Ashley Hughes, forward Ebony Harrison and sharpshooter Tierani Richardson back, along with a platoon of contributors, the Bulldogs enter the 2012-2013 year as the top-ranked team in Class 3A.

It is a difficult accolade to reconcile, part burden, part point of pride. But for Todd, it's just another thing to deal with.

"Yeah, it's important, and we're going to do everything in our power to hold onto that ranking," Todd said. "But when you get down to it, (the ranking) doesn't really mean that much, because you still have to win the games."

Hughes, Harrison and Richardson are the power trio, but Todd will rely on the contributions of at least five other players in his regular rotation, including sophomore Bailey Eldred and seniors Salina Johnson, Darsha Reagle and Ashlee Walker.

"I don't feel like I've got just five starters," Todd said. "As a coach, that is a wonderful thing to have."

There is no doubting, however, that this is Hughes' team. Last year's All-Ardmoreite Girls Player of the Year, Hughes was a full-fledged superstar for the Bulldogs from her point guard position, averaging 19 points, 5.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals per contest.

But her intangibles and her leadership qualities are what Todd values most highly.

"She makes me a way better coach when she's on the floor," Todd said. "She's very good at communicating and I've been very fortunate to have her there."

For Hughes, it has been her fierce competitive nature that has driven her and her teammates over a long offseason, not the status that comes from a lofty preseason ranking.

"Regardless of what we were ranked, we knew we were going to put in the work over the offseason," Hughes said. "Our expectation, and the people we have in here, is what really drives us."

Richardson, who averaged 19 points per game as well a year ago, felt that rather than be discouraged by the loss to Prague, more good could come from what was to be learned from the year, which included a victory over eventual state champion Millwood.

"We knew then that we could compete, that we could achieve our goal of being state champions," Richardson said. "(Against Prague) we just went cold, and there's not much to do about that."

But that experience, Hughes said, is something to learn from.

"I think knowing what it takes now, that helps us to avoid something like that," Hughes said. "I know that I personally didn't play my best game, but now, with time, I feel like if something like that happens again, we can be more mature and handle it better."

Harrison said she hasn't let herself, or the team, feel any of the crushing weight of the expectations.

And with the quiet resolve in her voice, it's easy to believe her. And to believe in the lessons this team hopes it has learned.

"We did think about (the ranking), but I don't think we freaked out," Harrison said. "We have to do what we have to do."

Sulphur tips off its season Friday night at home against Seminole (girls 6:30 p.m., boys 8).

Spencer White