LEVELLAND, Tex. — A large sign greets visitors to this small, windswept city in West Texas. Planted on the side of State Highway 114, about 30 miles west of Lubbock, beyond the oil rigs that rise from fallow cotton fields, the sign has borne the brunt of harsh winters and searing summers.
“Welcome to Levelland,” it reads across the top, with twin basketballs framing the words. “Home of the Loboettes.”
Then, in a show of pride, the sign lists each of the seven state championships won by the girls’ basketball team at Levelland High School under Dean Weese, who was then the coach. Levelland last won a title in 1997, but in some ways, the passage of time has only enhanced the program’s sense of tradition. Championships are hard won.
“From when you were little,” the senior guard Lindsey Sharp said, “you came to watch the Loboettes, and you dreamed of being a Loboette.”
This season, with a 24-2 record and a top-10 ranking in Class 4A, a statewide division for midsize schools, Levelland has resurfaced as a contender. But while the victories feel familiar to longtime fans who fill the stands at Gano Tubb Gymnasium, the latest collection of Loboettes has a personality all its own.
Gone are the calf-high, striped socks that were once one of the program’s trademarks. Clay Barnett, in his second season as Levelland’s coach, banished them to the dustbin of history after his players complained that they were uncomfortable — the socks would sag to their ankles — and ugly, too. His players wanted the socks gone, so they went.
Barnett, 43, also introduced music to practice. He is fond of telling his players that a quiet gym is a losing gym, so he cranks up the volume. At a recent practice, several Loboettes mouthed the words to “Wild Ones” by the rapper Flo Rida as they shot jumpers.
But the biggest change for the team has to do with its upbeat style of play. The Loboettes want to run, score and press. It is an approach that has a lot to do with two sisters — Elizabeth and Sujei Cera — who had barely even heard of this place before moving from Mexico in 2013.
Elizabeth, who recently turned 19, and Sujei, 18, are 5-foot-8-inch seniors who make up Levelland’s starting backcourt. They average 11 points apiece while combining for nearly seven steals a game. On the court, they are unflappable, so quick and smooth with the ball.
“I think they just brought a whole new ‘wow’ factor to Levelland,” the freshman forward Peyton Himango said.
If there are daunting challenges in their daily lives — a new language, a new culture — the Cera sisters say the gym provides refuge. Although their English has improved, they tend to be quiet around strangers. They feel much more comfortable with teammates.
“It’s really awesome to let them do their thing,” said Haylee Jackson, a senior and the team’s leading scorer. “Out here, with us, they can just be themselves.”
In addition to becoming acquainted with Taco Villa (the burritos are a team favorite) and dance parties at Lobo Lanes (a bowling alley) and the interior of Jackson’s Camaro (a vehicle that ranks among the Loboettes’ preferred methods of transportation), the Cera sisters have picked up on the local lingo.
“I know to say, ‘Dangit!’ whenever I make a mistake,” Elizabeth Cera said.
In an interview conducted with the help of Alex Soliz, an assistant football coach who is fluent in Spanish, the Cera sisters spoke of their childhood in Chihuahua, Mexico, a city about 230 miles south of El Paso, and explained how they had learned the game from their father, Luis Arturo Cera, a basketball coach. Their neighborhood had a playground with a hoop, they said, and they spent long hours there. Elizabeth Cera sought to emulate the moves of Kobe Bryant, her favorite player.
When their parents separated in June 2013, their mother, Sujei Gutierrez, moved to Levelland with her three children — Elizabeth and Sujei have a younger brother — and found work at a local restaurant. They have extended family here, Elizabeth Cera said. Their father visits every three months.
On their first day at Levelland High School in August 2013, about a week before the start of classes, Elizabeth and Sujei Cera met with Priscilla Armes, a secretary in the guidance office. The Cera sisters spoke almost no English and were homesick, Sujei Cera said. But they were curious whether the school had a basketball team. If so, they hoped to play.
Armes, who set about enrolling the Cera sisters in classes for students who spoke English as a second language, called Barnett.
“She said, ‘I’ve got these two girls from Mexico, and they want to play basketball,’ ” Barnett said. “I’m thinking, this is going to be a problem because we’re not going to be able to communicate, and they’re probably not going to be able to play very well. And it’ll just be a tough situation.”
Barnett sent them to practice with the junior varsity team — “You take the Mexico girls,” Barnett told Trevor Tucek, one of his assistants — and it did not take long for Tucek to provide a scouting report. It was something along the lines of “These girls can play.” Barnett summoned them to work out with the varsity.
“Elizabeth makes these no-look passes, and kids are unprepared: ‘She wasn’t even looking at me!’ ” Barnett said. “Yeah, but you better get ready. She’ll zip it over to you real quick, and if you’re not paying attention, you might get hit in the face.”
Rumors began to circulate at the school and beyond — that the Cera sisters were capable of dominating games, which was true, and that they had played for Mexico’s national team, which was false. Some stories were crazier than others, Barnett said.
But when eligibility issues prevented them from playing varsity basketball last season, Elizabeth and Sujei Cera joined the J.V. team and surmounted some early hurdles. At halftime of their first game, they followed their teammates to the locker room and began to remove their sneakers. They thought the game was over.
Their talent was obvious, though. Himango, who was in the eighth grade at the time, said she often attended J.V. games just so she could watch the Cera sisters play.
But the sisters also grew bored with the level of competition, Barnett said, especially during the second half of the season. Their play suffered.
“They weren’t challenged at all,” Barnett said. “They almost got worse.”
This season, any such concerns have evaporated. College coaches have been scouting them, Barnett said, and they are doing well in school. They even help their teammates with Spanish homework. The Loboettes are scoring nearly 80 points a game in district play.
On Tuesday, as the team boarded a bus bound for Lamesa High School, each player received a bag of pregame treats: beef jerky, animal crackers, a bottle of Gatorade. After 70 miles of sun-drenched plains, the bus reached its destination.
The Loboettes are a team of ritual — their high-five routines are worthy of an instruction manual — and they sang a song in Spanish before taking the court for warm-ups. Of course, only two of the players really knew what the words meant.
Once the game began, Levelland’s lead slowly expanded like a balloon filling with helium. Lamesa’s mascot, a scowling tornado, could do little but watch.
Early in the third quarter, Elizabeth Cera stole a pass, took three dribbles and whipped a 30-foot pass to Jackson for a layup. On their next possession, Sujei Cera leaked out for a layup and a 23-point lead. The Loboettes won by 37.
Missy Himango, whose daughter Peyton started in the post, marveled at the team’s approach and the Cera sisters’ impact. Himango, 46, played for Levelland’s state championship team in 1986. But the Loboettes of yore, she said, were more methodical. The team has changed.
“It’s so fun,” she said, “to watch them run.”
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