The residents of Nazareth have long dealt with droughts. The Panhandle hamlet was founded in 1902 by four farming families and a German priest, and for the three hundred or so Texans who now call the town home, “drought” might have been the local term to describe the past few years’ swoon for Nazareth High School’s proud girls basketball program. Though it’s hard to believe anyone else in the state would have called it that.
In 2022, the Nazareth Swiftettes failed to reach the University Interscholastic League class 1A state semifinals for the first time in a decade, falling two games short. With that, the number of consecutive seasons the team had gone without bringing a state championship trophy back to the school gym extended to—gasp—two.
Well, the championship drought is over. Last week, the Swiftettes traveled to San Antonio to dispatch Neches in the semifinals before rallying from an early 10–0 deficit to overcome Huckabay in the state championship game. Things are back to the way they were in the Castro County town, located nearly equidistant from Amarillo to the north and Lubbock to the south.
By simply taking the court in San Antonio, Nazareth added to a state record it already holds for the most appearances in the UIL girls basketball state tournament. The Swiftettes have made the state semifinals 31 times now, all in the UIL conference for the smallest schools participating in athletic competitions. On the long ride back, the Swiftettes took home the program’s twenty-fifth state championship trophy—also a UIL girls basketball record. Nazareth’s total is the most won by any public high school girls basketball team in the country, topped only by the thirty Texas private-school titles won by Dallas’s Bishop Lynch. Before their recent dry spell, the Swiftettes won four consecutive championships. Nazareth also boasts the most wins in the history of the UIL girls state tournament, with an overall record of 52–8.
“The clock ticks extremely slow those last few minutes,” Nazareth coach Eric Schilling said of the final victory. “That buzzer sounds, and everything is lifted off of you. Plus, you get to see the girls all celebrate.” Schilling owns a school-best seven girls basketball state titles from his twelve seasons at the helm. He has taken the Swiftettes to the state tournament nine times—literally. He’s repeatedly driven the 450-plus miles down to the Alamo City, most recently in a new, custom-decorated bus that put the yellow dogs of previous years to shame.
School officials estimate that almost two hundred Nazareth fans also made the trek, many dressed in “No Place Like Dome” T-shirts with different players’ names and uniform numbers printed on the back. “The support that’s behind us, it gives us the energy every game,” said Iris Schilderink, one of two seniors on the team. Some Nazareth folks stayed back in the Panhandle to watch the Swifts, who lost in the boys regional semifinals. Then there were Alan and Heather Birkenfeld, who shuttled between daughter Chloe’s games in San Antonio and son Tanner’s in Levelland.
Glenda Birkenfeld has seen pretty much all 25 of those Switftettes championships. She was Glenda Gerber when playing on Nazareth’s first girls state championship team in 1976–77, back when Texas girls played six-on-six and didn’t cross half-court. Her daughter, Jamie, played on title teams in 2002 and ’05. Her granddaughter, sophomore Brooklyn Birkenfeld, played on this year’s team, making the relatives the first three-generation group of Swiftettes state champions. Chloe Birkenfeld is Glenda’s niece. There’s also a cousin, injured junior Harley Gerber, who’s the latest in the long line of Gerbers populating Nazareth rosters through the years.
“It’s sure fun,” Glenda Birkenfeld said outside the Alamodome as family and fans congratulated the players after the Swiftettes beat Neches in the semis. “We live on a lot of farms, and the gym is where the kids spend most of their time. It’s just an excitement that catches on from one generation to another.”
“Nazareth is far from perfect, but there’s no better place to raise my kids,” said Jason Birkenfeld, Glenda’s son, Brooklyn’s father, and a partner in a third-generation, 4,500-acre family farm.
Such a celebratory gathering didn’t appear possible a few minutes into the second quarter of the title game last Saturday, when Nazareth trailed 10–0 after missing its first nine shot attempts and committing ten turnovers. Schilling called a thirty-second time-out and, borrowing a baseball phrase, told his players they’d have to manufacture a few baskets—and keep playing solid defense. They did both. Huckabay scored only two more field goals the rest of the game, and the Swiftettes pulled away.
Nazareth didn’t enjoy that late-game luxury in its semifinal win against Neches, which was playing in its third straight state tournament. The Swiftettes led only 43–42 a few seconds into the fourth quarter before going on an 10-point run, capped by a three-pointer from the left corner by five-foot-six senior Caroline Myrick. Schilling couldn’t suppress a smile during Neches’s subsequent time-out, because Myrick’s triple was only her third of the season, and the day before, Schilling had told assistant coach Whitney Bryan that he had a feeling Myrick would hit a big three.
Nazareth enjoyed a height advantage over most opponents this season, with six-foot-one junior Tatum Peterson and six-foot Schilderink in the starting lineup and the team’s leading scorer, five-foot-ten Brooklyn Birkenfeld, coming off the bench. Junior guard Presley Wheeler, who stepped up to replace starting point guard Harley Gerber after Gerber suffered an injured knee ligament in the regional quarterfinals, wound up being named the championship game’s most valuable player. Birkenfeld and Brooklyn Dyer, who moved into the starting lineup in Gerber’s absence, joined Wheeler on the Class 1A all-tournament team.
The Swiftettes’ warm-up tops feature a numbered star for every state title the school has won. The players wore blue road uniforms for both tournament games, meaning their team was the designated visitor and lower seed. That was based on having the poorest record of the semifinalists, at 29–9, which was result of a non-district schedule of games played almost exclusively against opponents from higher classifications. The Swiftettes went 2–2 against class 4A schools, including a loss by only 6 points to state semifinalist Sunnyvale. In sweeping its ten-game district season, Nazareth won by an average of 54.4 points.
After claiming state title number 25, the Nazareth contingent chowed down at the Yard House on the River Walk before returning to the Alamodome to cheer on a couple of Panhandle neighbors competing for the championship in other classifications. At the end of the day, Schilling got behind the wheel and drove to Sweetwater, just before the turn along Interstate 20 north toward Lubbock, where the team spent the night before the final stretch. The Swiftettes were back in Nazareth early the next morning and honored with a reception in the school cafeteria—the town has one school for grades pre-K through 12.
And the girls athletic calendar at the high school, with 75 total students, immediately turned to outdoor track and tennis, with every member of the Swiftettes participating in one or both.
“Everybody does everything,” said Schilling, who coaches track. The coach’s hardwood success over a dozen seasons has led to offers to coach at larger schools. Schilling wouldn’t be the first Nazareth coach to parlay success into bigger gigs; back in the eighties, Joe Lombard coached the Swiftettes to six basketball championships and then headed up to Canyon High School, where he won thirteen more.
But those schools that sent out feelers to Schilling either didn’t consider or attempted to ignore the fact that he grew up in Nazareth and helped the boys team to a pair of state basketball championships as a six-foot-four stretch forward. His wife, Mandy, played on three Swiftettes state title squads.
Those calls from other school districts were more frequent a few years ago. “I think everybody gets the point now,” Schilling said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The Swiftettes’ basketball roster next year is expected to include seven seniors, most of whom were significant contributors on this year’s state title team. Schilling shrugged: “Expectations are going to be high.”
But at least the championships are flowing again.