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Finding the Fab Four

Senior starters lead girls basketball program to victory thanks to shared history, friendship on and off the court
Francie Wilhelm
Senior captains Esme Barraz and Sam Shreves with their fellow senior starters Sam Cowles and Lily Hobbs. The quartet has played together since middle school and grown alongside the McCallum girls basketball program.

When it comes to the senior starting lineup of the varsity girls basketball team, there are three possible origin stories.

The more you play with someone, the more you understand each other’s playing styles, strengths and weaknesses and that builds a lot of chemistry.

— senior Lily Hobbs

“We were on the same team in seventh grade,” senior center Sam Cowles said. “But I think we’ve played against each other [in] rec league since probably third or fourth grade.”

But according to Cowles and her teammates, seniors power forward/center Sam Shreves, point guard Lily Hobbs and shooting guard Esme Barraz, it wasn’t these preteen encounters that banded the Fab Four into the group they are today. Really, it was a pair of goggles in a COVID-ridden freshman year that made the quartet feel and play like a team. 

“We could just bond over playing in matches and having those stupid goggles,” Shreves said.

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During the 2020-2021 basketball season, former girls basketball coach Lorie Campbell had players wear goggles for dribbling drills that prevented them from looking at the ground, though oftentimes the players would continue wearing the goggles throughout practice. 

“Even if it did not involve dribbling we were wearing goggles,” Cowles said. “It was really bad because you couldn’t have a side view either, so we were doing transition drills and couldn’t see.” 

Aside from the uncomfortable practicewear, playing together during COVID meant hours of close proximity when most other social activities were limited. 

“That’s your only human interaction over COVID so we were kinda like, forced to become close,” Cowles said.

The current seniors have experienced somewhat of an inverse of program unity. As freshmen, they experienced divisions, despite their being only a single varsity squad, due to roster changes and pandemic restrictions.

[We want to] go out with a bang.

— senior Esme Barraz

They feel that the current program, with separate freshman, JV and varsity teams, is more integrated. Shreves and Cowles point to a culture of positivity, encouraged by everyday traditions like “positive touches” and “celebrations,”  as a driving factor and something that seniors have worked hard to foster.

“I feel like I’m friends with every single person on all three teams,” Shreves said. “I don’t think there’s a single person I couldn’t hold a conversation with.”

Their coach Carly Kehn credits this seniors with being the prime architects of the program’s integrated culture.

“They just lead with compassion,” Kehn said.  “They re-explain and give reminders in the drill. If someone makes a mistake they go talk to them about it or show them how to do it right, especially when all three teams are together. I feel like the underclassmen, especially the freshman, feel like they can ask them pretty much anything on and off the court. They are great at celebrating the underclassmen too and pointing out their accomplishments and willingness to learn.”

Kehn added that you can tell how much the underclassmen appreciate the seniors by the way they celebrate them in team huddles as a way to thank them for being their teachers and biggest cheerleaders.

It’s a role that has been important to them every since they were freshmen wanting the best for the 2021 seniors playing in their final season of high school basketball. Even though they weren’t as close with those upperclassmen, the now-seniors worked hard when they were freshmen to make their first year as varsity athletes worth it.

The team’s hard work in 2021 culminated in a final district ranking that paints a very different picture of the girls basketball program that plays today. 

“Freshman year we were surprised that we finished fifth in district and the [then] seniors were so surprised,” Cowles said. “And then junior year we got first in district and went undefeated.”

Last year’s district victory was the girls basketball team’s first time taking home the title since 1994. With that success behind them and strong wins in early season non-district play, the seniors aim to to earn the bi-district title. 

“[We want to] go out with a bang,” Barraz said. 

Still, it’s about more than graduating with a trophy. The seniors hope to provide the program with longevity. 

“I want to make sure we set up the underclassmen below us with the best possible basketball program for next year since we are such a big group, and most of us are starters,” Shreves said. “I want to make sure the freshmen and sophomores know the plays. I want them to be able to take over our squads and be leaders in the program.”

We’re very competitive with each other. We’re always just pushing each other and getting better at it [basketball].

— senior Sam Shreves

Shreves believes that the program has grown stronger not just compared to other schools, but also internally. 

“We’re very competitive with each other,” Shreves said. “Me and Sam [Cowles] love to compete. We’re always just pushing each other and getting better at it [basketball].” 

According to Hobbs, the closeness of the starters is a major contributing factor to the team’s current success. 

“The more you play with someone, the more you understand each other’s playing styles, strengths and weaknesses, and that builds a lot of chemistry,” Hobbs said. “Also just because we’re friends, we support each other a lot and that adds positive energy on the court.”

Compared to their freshman year, the seniors’ time spent together is much more willing. By the Knights’ own calculations, the four can spend up to 30 hours a week together at practices, games, tournaments, bus rides, lunches in coach Carly Kehn’s classroom, celebratory dinners and trips to Amy’s Ice Cream. 

“We spend a lot of time together in basketball, but we still want to spend time outside,” Barraz said. “You’d think I’d be sick of them.”

This also means the seniors have had front-row seats to each other’s evolution as players and people. 

“Individually as players we’ve all grown tremendously since freshman year but also as a team,” Cowles said.

Cowles more than quadrupled her points scored, going from 62 to 252. Barraz boosted her defensive free-throw rate from 1.3 as a freshman to 3.1 as a junior. Her 107 points scored freshman year weren’t enough, as she went on more than double that number to 257 last season. 

Individually as players we’ve all grown tremendously since freshman year but also as a team.

— senior Sam Cowles

“It’s crazy to think back to freshman year,” Hobbs said. “Like Sam [Shreves], you were on the bench all the time (Shreves: “So were you!”) No, but I’m saying, now you’re a starter and now you’re a big part of the team. And Sam [Cowles] growing with her confidence, and Esme has always been hustling. She’s one of our best defenders. I’ve just seen so much growth in everyone.” 

Hobbs ended freshman year with only 11 points scored but completed her junior season with 91. She has shown off her shot skills (an area Barraz notes as particularly impressive) with key buzzer beaters (earning her the nickname “Big Shot” Hobbs), like in the scrimmage victory against Pflugerville-Connally last year and third quarter three-pointer against Northeast on Jan. 12. Shreves experienced a similar point jump, from four in the freshman season to 84 as a junior, as well as a large increase in playing time as her skills have developed. 

But the seniors don’t just contribute points on the scoreboard. They also act as leaders within the program, with Shreves and Barraz specifically being captains. 

“My freshman year I never would have thought to give someone advice,” Shreves said. “I just want to help make sure everyone has the best possible chance they can to be good at the sport.”

One way that the senior varsity players collectively show leadership is during sub-varsity tournaments, which the varsity team helps organize and ref.

“I feel like that’s when a lot of bonds cross teams,” Barraz said.

These tournaments allow younger players to hone their skills against teams from outside their typical district and non-district opponents while receiving guidance from their more seasoned peers. 

“It’s big for like the whole program,” Hobbs said. “[We’re] all working together for like 12 hours of the day. It’s a great thing.”

For all four senior starters, their friendships with each other and the shared experience of high school athletics are irreplaceable. 

“I’m just so used to my teammates and my friends,” Barraz said.

After playing basketball for so many years against, beside and now truly with each other, the Fab Four’s memories of the sport, from the hard losses to the core memory victories, are inherently memories of each other.

“We have so many highs and lows but the constant is that we’re all together throughout all of it and it makes everything so much better,” Hobbs said. “It makes the highs higher and the lows also higher.” 

This story was originally published on The Shield Online on February 2, 2024.