Written by Brad Townsend
Duncanville girls basketball dynasty rolls on under Cathy Self-Morgan
DUNCANVILLE — Early in her tenure as Duncanville girls basketball coach, Cathy Self-Morgan confidently strode into the gym and cheerfully waved to a cluster of longtime Pantherettes fans.
Befuddled, the fans looked at one another. Whom was the coach waving at? For 30 years, beloved Sandra Meadows and successor Sara Hackerott simply had walked in and won championships and their hearts in the process.
Next game, Self-Morgan waved again. They waved back. Thirteen years, two state championships and a current 68-game winning streak later, you’d better believe they are waving now.
“Those blue-haired people,” as Self-Morgan affectionately calls them, will congregate Friday in Austin’s Frank Erwin Center to cheer on 40-0 Duncanville against 38-2 League City Clear Springs in a Class 5A state tournament semifinal.
“I mean, they love the Duncanville Pantherettes,” Self-Morgan, 57, chuckles. “But in the same respect, if we were to lose, they’ll be the first ones ’ta grumblin‘. They’ll get over it, but boy they’ll grumble.”
Tough to grumble about this season’s Pantherettes, who have outscored opponents 2,575 to 1,290 — yes, by almost double.
Duncanville’s 32.1-point average margin of victory would seem preposterous had last season’s 40-1 state champion Pantherettes not been similarly dominant.
Duncanville won last year’s state semifinal game by 24 points over 37-2 Cypress Falls. In the final against 40-1 Spring Dekaney, the Pantherettes stormed to a 41-9 halftime lead and won, 69-31, the largest blowout in 5A girls title-game history.
Five of those Pantherettes graduated, including Empress Davenport, who is starting at Texas this season. But with a suffocating defense and pace-pushing offense, Duncanville is back in the state tournament for the 22nd time and seeking its eighth championship.
Along with Clear Springs, a possible title-game showdown against fellow unbeaten Pflugerville (38-0) stands in the way of Duncanville becoming the first unscathed girls 5A champion since Rockwall in 2007, and the first repeat winner since Mansfield won four straight from 1999 to 2002.
“Forty-and-0 is still not that big of a deal,” Self-Morgan says. “The ‘0’ is a big deal, right? That’s what we’ve got to keep for two more games.”
Returning to Austin, she says matter-of-factly, was “expected” in 38,000-citizen Duncanville and its 4,000-student high school, 13 miles southwest of Dallas.
Daunting? The Pantherettes seem to not only embrace such expectations but to be driven by them. Understand that Duncanville’s only defeat in the last 81 games, a 58-50 loss to Plano West on Dec. 3, 2011, is like a bitter pill that’s still lodged in the Pantherettes’ throats.
“Ever since we lost that game, we were like, ‘Nope, we’re not losing any more,’” junior point guard Tasia Foman says. “That was the promise we made to each other.”
Tough act to follow
From all indications, this inner belief and burning competiveness stems from Self-Morgan.
A native of Jourdanton in South Texas, Self-Morgan was one of the University of Texas’ first scholarship basketball players. She earned team MVP honors in 1975 and ’76 and played her senior season under future Naismith Hall of Famer Jody Conradt.
Before her April 2000 arrival at Duncanville, Self-Morgan coached at Austin Westlake for 22 seasons, winning state titles in 1993, 1995 and 1996.
“When I came to interview for this job, I wasn’t looking to leave,” she says. “I had built up my dynasty there. I had my legacy rolling.
“But then I came to the Metroplex and saw the passion for basketball and the need that I felt these athletes had, that I knew I could give.
“It was the best move I’ve ever made in my life.”
She knew, of course, that she was walking into Meadows’ prodigious shadow. During Meadows’ 1968 to 1993 reign, the Pantherettes won state titles in 1976, 1988, 1989 and 1990.
Yes, Duncanville’s current 68-game run is the longest active girls high school basketball streak in the country — but it’s barely halfway to the 134-game streak Meadows’ Pantherettes fashioned between Dec. 30, 1987 and March 1, 1991.
As a high school player, Self-Morgan had faced Meadows’ teams in Duncanville’s annual tournament. As a coach she went head-to-head against Meadows and sometimes reached out to her for advice, before Meadows’ 1994 death at age 59, from cancer.
Would you believe it? The 1995 5A state final, the first since Meadows’ passing, was between Self-Morgan’s Chaparrals and 37-0 Duncanville, coached by former Meadows assistant Hackerott.
Wearing embroidered Pantherettes logos on its shorts in Meadows’ memory, Duncanville lost that emotional final to Westlake, 59-56 in overtime.
Hackerott coached the Tamika Catchings-led Pantherettes to the 1997 state title and went 173-11 in five seasons before retiring from coaching. Former Pantherettes player Margaret Thomas took over for two seasons, just as neighboring Mansfield began its dominant run.
In stepped Self-Morgan, a great coach in her own right, sure, but also a former enemy. And what was with the smiling and waving?
“I was one of those fans,” says Tammy Anderson, who has attended Pantherettes games since the mid-80s. “We all turned around like, ‘Is she waving at you?’ Then she waved more sternly and we decided, ‘Oh, I guess she’s waving at all of us.’
“My first impression of her was, ‘She beat Duncanville in the state finals in overtime.’ But she’s such a neat person. Loves the fans, appreciates them coming, will listen to criticism. She may not use it, but she’ll listen to it.”
Pride of the city
Self-Morgan has forged her own legacy at Duncanville, winning the 2003 and 2012 state titles and finishing as runner-up in 2004.
Three years ago, she took the added role of Duncanville’s athletic director. On most school days she’s in the athletic director’s office until 1. Then she moves to her basketball office.
She’s a Texas high school coaching legend in her own right. Her career record of 955-199 and five state titles are superior to Meadows’ 906-207 and four state titles, but the shadow remains.
After all, the Pantherettes play in Sandra Meadows Memorial Arena. Every school day, Self-Morgan walks past the glassed case that pays homage to Meadows and past the Pantherettes memorabilia room full of photos, plaques and old newspaper clippings.
“In reality, we inherited the legacy of Duncanville,” Self-Morgan says. “And when Duncanville shows up, in girls or boys basketball, people are going to have their hype-up.”
As athletic director, she embraces Duncanville’s self-proclaimed “City of Champions” legacy, which in addition to seven Pantherettes championships and three in boys basketball includes three baseball titles, two in girls soccer and one each in football, volleyball, boys soccer and boys track.
Last year, Self-Morgan made a high-profile boys basketball coaching hire, four-time state champion coach Danny Henderson, coming off back-to-back state titles at Flower Mound Marcus.
“I love it,” she says. “I feel like I help all sports here be better, get what they need, make everyone’s life easier. We drive each others’ buses, sit on each others’ bench if a coach is sick.
“Some of our head coaches will tell people, ‘Don’t bother her,’ but I tell them, ‘No, it’s part of my job,’” she says. “I’ll carry my phone with me at practice. The girls are used to me answering it.”
All of Duncanville’s athletic teams go by the nickname “Panthers” except for the girls basketball Pantherettes, a powerhouse unto themselves.
The Pantherettes’ locker room is adorned with red and blue balloons and tissue paper this week, but Self-Morgan points to a wall and what she believes is her team’s greatest source of inspiration. The wall is covered with year-by-year Pantherettes team photos dating to 1969.
“I keep them here so the kids can see, ‘This is the legacy that you’ve got to continue.’”
Making a difference
The photos reflect transitioning basketball eras and demographics.
Most of Meadows’ players were ponytailed blondes and brunettes.
In 2000, Duncanville High’s ethnic composition was 1,014 white, 869 African-American and 314 Hispanic. As of 2010, it was 1,888 African-American, 1,450 Hispanic and 378 white, with 57 percent of students on free or reduced lunch plans.
The city’s commitment to education and athletics is reflected in the passing of bond votes that enabled the 2003 construction of Meadows Arena, a new classroom wing and renovations to the baseball and softball facilities.
Meadows Arena houses five gyms, with two others within 100 yards.
All five Pantherettes from last season earned college basketball scholarships — as did all eight from the previous year, plus the team manager, who had been unable to make the Duncanville squad but continued to practice with the team.
Pantherettes often return from college recruiting visits remarking that facilities paled compared with Duncanville’s.
“I have a whole lot more self-satisfaction in the 13 years I’ve been here than I did at Westlake,” Self-Morgan says. “With kids getting their college education paid for that wouldn’t have it, with girls that come back and thank me for getting them out of where they were, seeing how successful they are now.”
Self-Morgan says a couple of colleges have approached her about jobs in recent years, but the path to most college head coaching jobs is to become an assistant first.
“I think I’d be a very good assistant,” she says. “But I think I’d also probably put in a little more of my thoughts than the head coach would want.”
During games, Meadows often displayed a fiery competiveness by stomping her feet or hollering to get players’ or referees’ attention.
Self-Morgan rarely yells, but shows her competiveness in other ways. Her South Texas twang enables her to sound pleasant while being blunt. Her message resonates without yelling.
“When you’re around someone for so long, you can tell when they’re mad or not,” junior guard Ariel Atkins says. “It’s just the way she says it, or the facial expression. She’s not going to holler at you, but you know you’re in trouble.”
A month after she arrived at Duncanville, Cathy Self married Jack Morgan, whose two daughters played for Cathy at Westlake during the mid-90s.
Morgan’s first wife died of cancer in 1994. Cathy’s daughter from a first marriage graduated from high school in 2000. Otherwise, she might have been more reluctant to leave central Texas for Duncanville.
Jack Morgan is the public address announcer for Pantherettes home games.
“I love girls basketball,” he says. “Plus, if I didn’t go to the games and I wasn’t a basketball fan, I’d never see her. I enjoy watching her because she’s very good at what she does.”
During road games, he keeps the Pantherettes’ scoring book, sitting mere feet from his pacing wife. She laughs when asked if it affects her coaching.
“It’s business,” she said. “He knows when I have my business face on — as almost everybody else does.”
The night before last week’s Region I tournament at Fort Worth’s Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, it occurred to Self-Morgan that the Pantherettes could lose. She told Jack that the mere thought almost caused a panic attack.
“We’re not ready to lose,” she told him. “I don’t have these kids in any form or fashion prepared for that.”
After a restless night, she awoke with a plan.
“OK,” she told Jack. “We just won’t let it happen.”
Follow Brad Townsend on Twitter at @Townbrad.