BULLARD — The Bullard Lady Panthers basketball team fell just short of reaching the playoffs with a 45-41 loss to the Van Lady Vandals in a game that decided the third and final playoff spot in District 15-3A, but they made vast improvements from a year ago.

Greg Gay came in as Bullard’s new girl’s head basketball coach during the summer and brought with him a new mind set. The Lady Panthers players adopted his philosophies and work ethic, and it paid off with the team just missing the playoffs in Gay’s first year.

“You always want to improve over what happened the last year,” Gay said. “My main goal was to at least have a chance to get into the playoffs, which we did. We got in a three-way tie with Van and Lindale and we just came up a little bit short, but at least we were still playing for something at the end.”

In fact, it took two overtime periods for the Lady Vandals to get past the Lady Panthers.

Natalie Gray, who proved to be a leader on the floor for Bullard throughout the season, came through with a buzzer-beating three-point shot from half-court that tied the game 33-33 and sent it into the first overtime.

“With Natalie, I came in on day one and told her she has to be the leader of this team,” Gay said. “On the floor, overall, she can probably do more things than the others and being the point-guard she has got to be almost like the coach out on the floor.

“I was very pleased with her progression throughout the year. I thought she took on the leadership role in a positive way, and to the very end she was urging them (her teammates) on. That’s all you can ask for.”

Sarah Welling also proved to be a leader and a presence under the basket at both ends of the floor for the Lady Panthers. With this season being her first at the varsity level, Gay said she played as well as could be expected.

“I thought she did a good job,” Gay said. “She had to play inside and outside, so she was willing to do whatever we needed her to do.

“Defensively she probably progressed as much as anybody, and for her first year on varsity, I was pleased.”

Bullard was unable to field a junior varsity basketball team this season, but Gay said with positive feedback from the community and a working relationship between the current players at the high school level and the kids that will be coming into the program, he feels the number of players will improve next year.

“I think the fact that we had a winning season and the fact that we were there — that we controlled our own fate as far as getting into the playoffs — and that for the first time people actually started coming out early in district to watch some of the girls games rather than just the boys games will help. We’ve had people in the community telling the girls what a great job they did, and right now they’re excited.

“We’ve spent a lot of time as coaches, but also with my high school girls, working with the middle school girls. We went to some of their practices, my girls were real good about going to some of their games, and they were also very involved with our youth league, as far as coaching teams. We’ve started building bonds with the younger kids and consequently, more of them come to our games, and I think you are going to see more of them want to play basketball in Bullard.”

With a solid season under their belts and 10 players returning, the Lady Panthers will have plenty to build on. Gay said his players are excited to begin working toward the 2006-07 season and that their level of improvement starts with the off-season program.

“It’s going to be what we do from now until next season,” Gay said. “That is when you get better as an individual.

“If they are willing to put in the work in the weight room, if they are willing to get out and shoot the shots required, they’re willing to get out and learn how to handle the ball better, than I feel like next year we can expect even greater things.”

— Publisher Amy Miller contributed to this report.

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