The second place was something too frequent, which the Indians from El Reno liked. They finished second at the Shawnee Invitational last year and lost in State Championship Game 5A to McAlester. The extra second-place finishes this season in early-season tournaments only added to their disappointment.
However, last week the Lady Indians finally pulled ahead when they edged out the competition at this year’s Shawnee Invitational to claim the championship with a hard-fought victory over 6A Jenks, 50-36.
Watch the championship match replay: 2023 Shawnee Invitational Basketball Championships (1-21-23)
“The Shawnee is one of the toughest tournaments we play because it’s full of 5A and 6A talent,” said El Reno head coach Jennifer Douglas. “Every game is hard.”
El Reno opened the tournament with a convincing 63-26 victory over Ardmore. The Lady Indians avenged last year’s tournament defeat by knocking out Mustang in the semi-finals 46-39.
“I just feel like it was really good teamwork throughout the weekend,” Douglas said. “It doesn’t matter who gets the glory or gets the awards. Individual accolades don’t come unless the team wins. It is imperative that the team is ahead of you. That’s exactly what they did this weekend and I’m so proud of them.”
Junior forward Pauline Black-Harmon became the MVP of the tournament after she scored three victories in Lady Indian’s balanced scoring attack.
“It means a lot,” Black-Harmon said after the title game. “This is our third tournament. We lost the other two in the championship, so that means a lot.”
El Reno, now 12-3 of the season, is looking forward to a return to the state tournament despite only having one senior on its roster. The Lady Indians start three sophomores and two juniors.
“Getting into the state tournament is an expectation in our program,” Douglas said. “This is my seventh year here and we have made it five of the previous six years. That’s what we’ve been talking about since day one – what it takes to get there, the culture you have to create, and the standards and expectations in practice.”
Although they are young, El Reno’s newcomers have a lot of student experience. Black-Harmon has been practicing since she was a freshman. Junior point guard Najoni Sleeper earned precious minutes as a defenseman last season. Sophomores Lilly Thomas (Calumet) and Emmary Elizondo (Tahlequah Sequoyah) played a lot as freshmen at their previous schools. Rounding out the talented starting five is sophomore defenseman Reagan Bugai.
“They’re hungry,” Douglas admitted of his team. “They are ready to return to the state tournament. There is tough competition. We don’t want to look any further than getting there first.”
“I truly believe we have the talent to make the state tournament and make some noise if we get there,” Douglas added. “I’m just grateful that I got to coach this team and I’m keeping them for another year and another year after that. It’s fascinating. I can’t wait to see them grow. They have grown so much since October and I can’t wait to see them grow even more in the next few years.”