Editor’s Note: Whitney Gaston-Loyd won a state championship as a member of the Southwood Lady Cowboys in 2008. She now plays at Xavier University in New Orleans.
On a recent road trip to Texarkana, Texas, the Southwood Lady Cowboys shut down the Liberty-Eylau Leopards, who entered the game 11-2, 70-45. The lopsided victory happened even though the Leopards committed just 12 turnovers and boasted double-digit scoring performances from their two Division I signees, Sharde Collins (University of Arkansas-Little Rock) and Imani Wright (Baylor).
Liberty-Eylau isn’t the first talented team to fall at the hands of the Lady Cowboys, who received a game-high 23 points from junior guard Chelsea Tiuel (who drained four 3-point baskets) while seniors Keona Favis, Aerika Robertson and Kourtney Pennywell contributed 15, 14 and 10 respectively.
“When you a play a team like Southwood, they expose your weaknesses,” Liberty-Eylau’s head coach Robert Cochran said. “That’s why we scheduled them twice. They’re a very good team and tonight they showed us where we needed to improve.”
But even more telling than the score of Friday night’s game were the comments being made by Liberty-Eylau fans. Even in defeat, murmurs among the crowd expressed the awe and respect for this Southwood team.
Statements like “the whole bench can play,” “man, those girls hustle” or “look in their huddle, he’s got everyone’s full attention” echoed throughout bleachers, labeling this team as not only talented, but hard working and dedicated.
For years, Southwood High School has been home to one of the best girl’s basketball programs in Louisiana under head coach Steve McDowell. McDowell has been coaching for 29 years, 21 at Southwood.
“Southwood’s been good to me as a coach and as a teacher, so I want to do the best I can for Southwood,” McDowell said. “It’s been a special place, a big chapter in my life and for my family.”
Tonight, Southwood (18-1) opens District 1-5A play at Parkway.
In his time, McDowell has guided 15 teams to the prized final game of the season. Five of those teams became runner-up and 10 were crowned the state champions. Along with postseason success, McDowell’s program has been a rare phenomenon treasured by those who have witnessed it.
“To play for this team means a lot to me,” Robertson said. “I didn’t know a lot about Southwood when we first moved here, but after I got down here I learned a lot about the respect of the Southwood tradition. It’s meant a lot to be a part of a team that knows how to work together. We’re like a family.”
Said Favis: “You have to be mentally powerful. It’s a hard job, but playing here has really helped me through my life. It’s been a great experience for me, and it’s made me a better basketball player and person.”
At Southwood, both players and coaches have an agreed sense of responsibility. This responsibility is the foundation that each teams builds on in its quest for not only a successful season, but also a life as a successful woman in the future.
It demands hard work, mental toughness, dedication and a firm belief in the intangibles. Maturing in this program also means maturing as person, and that’s one of the rewards McDowell receives for coaching.
“I care about kids, and that’s the reason I first got into it,” McDowell said. “It’s not just basketball. I guess the biggest enjoyment I get out of it is seeing you guys get better and be successful after high school and even after your college days. It thrills me to see my players grow to be successful.”
In an environment this genuine, it’s difficult to hide from one’s potential, and although the pay for participating in such a program is lucrative, the labor is hard. These Lady Cowboys feel that the success they have had so far is due to their willingness to learn, condition, focus, and grind hard on the offensive and defensive end.
From the moment the girls walk into the gym, they are no longer typical high school students, but a group of in-tune athletes whose only mission is better themselves and their teammates every time they lace up their Nikes.
“They’re tough. You have to come in serious,” Pennywell said. “You have to be prepared for whatever we’re doing and ready to learn something each day. You’ve also got to be ready to work together.”
This team, loaded with freshmen and sophomores just a few seasons ago, now brandishes five seniors who have been more than tested. Combined with these five are few juniors who are just as qualified and play a part in the unbelievable chemistry this team has developed on and off the court. After playing with each other for three or more years, the girls have forged a special on-court connection.
“You learn to adapt to how each and every one of us plays our game,” Jessy Ellis said. “You know what all she can do and what she can’t do.”
“It’s just natural now,” Aerial Robertson said. “Knowing what they’re going to do, it’s communication. It’s a connection with all of us. Its hard to say that we’re leaving Southwood once you’ve gotten so close to your teammates.”
As a squad that has matured so much in its time at Southwood, every situation has factored into its growth. With all the success it has earned so far, all hasn’t been sweet. All five seniors have played in at least one state championship game, but none have walked away with a title.
“I wish I could go back in time and do things differently, but that’s not possible,” Pennywell said. “So I’ve just looked at each year as a better year to play harder and better than I did each time. Now I’ve only got one more year, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
“The fact that we lost again, it hurt us. We don’t want to feel that again, it’s our senior year,” Favis said. “So we’re working hard everyday. Anything we need to do to get to that point again, we’re going to do. Sweat, blood, and tears.”
Working all year towards a goal but not being able to reach it can be devastating. However, instead of sulking in their demise, the Lady Cowboys continue to use their shortcoming as an underlying motivator.
“We’ve just got to finish strong. It makes us work harder during practice, cause we know how its feels to be there,” Ellis said.
Said McDowell: “Whether you win it or not doesn’t mean you’re successful. You’ve got to be thankful for your season. God has blessed our program in so many ways, and I am thankful to have been able to been able to work with such wonderful girls and assistant coaches.”
Despite the elusive state title, the Lady Cowboys do not focus on making it to the finals, but on getting better every day and being the best Southwood squad they can be. Whether or not their best leads to a state championship, only time can tell.