SULPHUR — The date was March 9, 2012.

The Sulphur Bulldogs sat in the locker room of Yukon High School, stewing in the wake of a shocking 47-36 loss to Prague in the 3A state semifinals.

There was a universal feeling among the team, a team that came so close to a championship.

"Disappointed," Ashley Hughes said Tuesday.

Her teammates and fellow seniors Tierani Richardson and Ebony Harrison nod, no further explanation necessary. The Bulldogs were high off an area win over powerhouse Millwood and a thrilling quarterfinal victory over Salina; it seemed destiny was on their side, that the gold ball was meant to be theirs.

Even now, a full year later, the pain still lingers. Coach Toby Todd struggles to talk about the game, referring to it only as "where we ended last year."

He knew, and his players knew, that they didn't want to feel like that ever again. So Todd took action.

"We've got a sign in our locker room that's been there all season long," Todd said. "It says '2012-2013 Sulphur Lady Bulldogs.'"
"Underneath that, it says 'Unfinished Business.'"

It is a fitting label for this Sulphur squad, a team that has carried the mantle of No. 1 for the entire season and done nothing to discredit that reputation.

As well as the Bulldogs played last year, at times this season the squad has seemed borderline invincible. Not just content with winning, but doing so thoroughly; of Sulphur's 27 wins this season, only two have been by fewer than 10 points.

But, according to Harrison, the methods didn't really change. The Bulldogs didn't discover a secret formula or a foolproof offensive set.

Just a nose to the grindstone mentality and work ethic.

"We did everything pretty much the same as last year," Harrison said. "We just had a little more maturity, and I think we pushed everything a little bit harder."

Ironic, since they are a group that defies convention at every turn — a remarkably rare mixture of experience, talent, desire and coaching that has bludgeoned and beaten down a list of challengers that include the Texas 4A state champions (Georgetown, Tx.), a 6A traditional power (Tulsa Union) and one of Oklahoma's 4A state tournament entrants (Mount St. Mary's).

Lined up, mowed down. Just another speed bump on the road to now, this moment, when a year's worth of work is boiled down to three day against the best that Class 3A has to offer.

"We all wanted to work hard, to be No. 1 and get to this point," Richardson said. "So what happened last year wouldn't repeat itself."

The team had as strong a support system as possible in Todd, whose fanatical and minute approach to practice, game-planning and scouting is unparalleled. He routinely watches hours of opposing teams on tape, plans every second of every practice to the dot and has a remarkable sense for in-game adjustments.

"Coach Todd deserves an enormous amount of credit for what he's done this year," Hughes said. "For as hard as we work, he does a ton of stuff behind the scenes that nobody knows about."

"He spends a lot of time out of his life with us that he could be spending with his family," Harrison said.

But ultimately, Todd allowed his seniors ownership of their team, and they have rewarded his faith with an unbeaten campaign and a shot at the program's first state title in girls basketball.

"I'm a firm believer that if you give people a little bit of ownership, they take pride in it, and it means something to them," Todd said. "That's what I've seen out of this group, even since they were sophomores."

And now comes the day of reckoning, finally. A year of 6 a.m. practices, of endless suicides punctuated by cries of "State Champs!" and the leadership of an outstanding senior class comes down to this.

Lindsay is the first item on the agenda, as the Bulldogs take on the Leopards at 7 p.m. today.Should Sulphur pass that test, a potential semifinal match with fellow unbeaten Adair looms, a squad that features five excellent guards.

On the other side of the bracket lurks defending champion Millwood, just hoping to take a crack at the only 3A team to have beaten them in the past two years.

Three days. Three games. And at the end a gold ball — and state championship immortality — for the survivor. It's a scenario played out by teenagers all across the Sooner State.

But it is not a vision that Sulphur's girls contemplate often. When asked what it would mean for them to earn a state championship, they were momentarily speechless.

"There are glimpses, sometimes," Hughes said. "But I don't know if I've really allowed myself to think about that."

From what anyone has seen of Sulphur this year, you would expect little else.

After all, business comes first.

Follow White on Twitter: @swhiteARD