LUBBOCK, Texas — Former Western Michigan University Head Coach P.J. Fleck used the mantra to fuel the Broncos' run to the 81st Cotton Bowl Classic. Another sideline general in Midlothian, the lone Ellis County representative still paddling toward postseason history, used it to power an improbable run to the UIL state tournament.
Row the boat.
And while one game-winning shot clanged harmlessly off the left side of the rim in Garland, another 361 miles northeast found its mark and made history.
With the help of a Kerrion Fields' buzzer beating 3-pointer against state-ranked Seminole High School Saturday at Lubbock Christian University's Rip Griffin Center, Midlothian Heritage High School earned its first state tournament appearance in school and city history.
It was no small feat for a school that's existed less time than most players' varsity athletic's careers.
"I can't ask for a better ending to a basketball game," Jaguar Head Coach Andy Slye said. "I would have liked it to be more comfortable, but we knew before the ball was even thrown up for the tip that it was going to be a four-quarter battle. Basketball is like a boxing match. It's a lot of body shot, body shot, body shot and then somebody's going to put their hands down and it's going to be a knockout. It's about sticking with it and fighting, grinding and having that grit. It came down to the last second and the ball went in. It was hard work, dedication and a little bit of divine intervention that got us to state."
With less that seven seconds left in the game, Fields took the inbound pass, raced up the right side of the court, stopped, set his feet and let the rainbow jumper knockout punch go with a quick yet easy and a hurried yet composed flick of his wrist.
As the ball sailed to the hoop there was dead silence — but only for a moment — until the crowd erupted and Slye could be seen sprinting onto the court more like a player than the 30-plus-year-old head coach that paced the Midlothian Heritage sidelines this season.
It's said he even lost his shoe during the sprint to the court-storming celebration.
"When Jackson was at the free throw line [the possession before], I looked at Coach [Slye] to see what he wanted me to do. He mouths to me, 'Get it to Jackson [McLaughlin],'" Fields said. "When [Michael Holland] inbounded the ball to me, I dribbled downcourt and as soon as I was about to pass it to Jackson, a defender was flying towards him. I thought to try and blow by him and take the layup, but I saw him backpedaling and going towards the goal. That's when I just stopped and pulled up."
Swish, nothing but net and ball game. The Midlothian Heritage Jaguars were state qualifiers.
The fact they had just knocked off the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches No. 9 team was furthest from his mind.
"I thought it was fake or that we hadn't really won when I made the shot until I saw our side screaming and running on the court," Fields continued. "I can't believe we're actually going to San Antonio and the Alamodome and that we made it to the state tournament when we've never been in one before. I'll never forget that moment."
To say the junior guards' jumper was the make or break shot of the century for Ellis County basketball may be a bit of an understatement. They are the first basketball team since the 1997 Italy Gladiators — which won the 2A title — to make it to a state tournament.
The last 4A team in Ellis County to claim a championship was Waxahachie High School's Runnin' Indians.
Though the basketball team will be the first in Midlothian to reach a state title game, the more surprising fact may be the time it took them to do it as well as the hodgepodge of inexperience the budding supernova had when improbability inevitably split the city in half.
Of the eight seniors on the Jaguar roster, only a few had varsity experience in former Head Coach Glen Hartson's Midlothian High program. One, a Panther baseball player under Ray Hydes and had never played basketball before, was discovered randomly throwing down thunderous dunks during an open gym session.
Another, fabled to have legendary, game-breaking speed, was one of the best 4A wide receivers in the state only months before the high school sports universe shifted from the gridiron to the hardwood.
Though each player has his own distinct and diverse backstory detailing how they made the dream scenario of a state tournament-bound Jaguar team a reality, there is one underlying characteristic common to all 14 boys from Greg Drake to Seth Golden to Payton Parker to Collin Valenta. It is a unified mindset of "grit and grind" powerful enough to make the impossible possible.
Row the boat.
"Sometimes it's surprising what we've been able to accomplish in such a short period. When I came to the program [in my junior year], I expected us to compete and to be successful, but I didn't imagine it would happen this quickly," said Holland, Midlothian Heritage's 6-foot-3 king of dirty work. "It's the edge we have that we take into every game. It's the chip on our shoulder. I think it's extremely important for us to keep that edge and the method of hard work that's gotten us to where we want to be and has us on the brink of doing something no one's ever seen. And while it's difficult to keep, I think everyone understands that hard work and grit is needed to keep us here."
Two years, 24 months, 104 weeks, 730 days, 17,520 hours and one 32-point 2016 area round loss to Abilene Wiley High School. That's how long it took to paddle to the state championship tournament.
Most second year schools struggle in their fledgling years. They have to develop talent and cultivate it. Rarely is it in such abundance during the onset of a program regardless of whether they're swinging a golf club or baseball or softball bat or rearing back to chuck a Hail Mary to the heavens.
Midlothian Heritage, however, is the precious anomaly to a question never thought possible. It is everything the more than 2,000 Westen Michigan fans screamed themselves hoarse for during Arlington's Cotton Bowl and everything beautiful about athletics — on any level.
They are the ultimate underdog. The Jaguars are the team you can't help but respect even when you're standing across the court from them and Holland is busy making your head coach toss his clipboard in the stands because the undersized forward logged his 16th rebound with three of your defenders standing next to him.
Because he's busy rowing the boat.
Take a minute and peek into the Jaguar coach's home 17 out of 24 hours of any given day and you'll understand why though the road to state — at least for Midlothian Heritage — has been fraught with peril unexpected twists and turns and a little divine intervention, it is special nonetheless. It is special because of the adversity, not in spite of it.
A modestly framed 8-by-12 photograph may explain more about what these Jaguars stand for and may prove to be the tip of the spear that leads Midlothian to its first title in its history.
If you look around Slye's office, there are autographed Texas Tech basketballs, bi-district, area and regional final trophies and motivational posters and trinkets, but one stands out the most — and loudest.
A picture of he and his team with three words drawn clearly across the top.
Row the boat.
"When we started the year O.A.R. — Ownership, Accountability and Responsibility — was the mantra. I started reading some P.J. Fleck stuff and thought, 'What the heck does an oar do?' It rows the boat," Slye said. "We brought in 'Row the Boat' and its caught on. It's kind of stolen, but it works. The kids have really bought into it. We knew we couldn't be complacent after the year we had in 2016 and wanted to take ownership of the team and program and make sure we keep getting better every day."
He said that commitment to hard work — the "grind" in Jaguar linguistics — is what made Fields' shot possible and their step toward history and their 1:30 p.m. matchup with TABC No. 3 Freeport Brazosport High School in the UIL 4A semifinals at the Alamodome in San Antonio all the more important.
"I jumped through the roof when he made that shot," Slye continued. "My wife texted me about an hour after the game and asked me how I felt. All I could say is 'I don't know.' I was shocked. I was happy. I was emotional. At the same time, the main thing that popped into my mind was, 'Let's win this thing. We've not finished and the boat isn't to its final destination."