— By GREG WEBB
Mackenzie Lankford, popularly monikered simply as “Mack” during her days of inhabiting the Weatherford High classrooms and basketball courts (as well as volleyball, track and even a softball stint), is continuing her winning ways in the classroom, and cager venues, for Abilene Christian University.
Lankford, in her junior year playing at guard for the Lady Wildcats, has translated her personal success to the ACU women’s team, who finished as co-champions of the Lone Star Conference (LSC), recording a 16-4 conference mark. The fortunes of this postseason will represent the Abilene university’s swan song in the Division II LSC, as ACU will make its jump to the Division I Southland Conference beginning in the fall.
Lankford has spent years on the court, hoping to achieve the level of competition she now experiences. Reaching the heights of a conference championship has not disappointed.
“We went to conference tournament my freshman year,” Lankford said, “but we barely got in and lost in the first round. The whole experience of our team working so hard to win a conference championship and going into postseason has just been so gratifying, especially since this is the last year in [the LSC].”
Lankford’s distinction as the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season barely scratches the surface of her value to the ACU squad. A force on defense as well, she led in the steals category, with nearly two takeaways per game.
Earlier this week, and for the third year in a row, Mack was named to the LSC’s All-Conference First Team. And gauging from past year’s post-conference seasons, she likely has more recognition coming her way.
Last year’s postseason awards included Daktronics’ Third-team All-American and a First Team nod on the All-South-Central Region roster. In her freshman year, besides earning First Team status, she was selected the LSC Freshman of the Year.
More recently, Mack was selected the LSC Player of the Week in two consecutive weeks in the waning dates of the conference schedule, averaging 24.5 points per game in the latter of the recognized stretches.
And all this while playing through some nagging injuries during the season. Mack has been playing so hard, so long in her career, playing through the health hiccups has become part of her athletic life.
The latest hiccup for ACU, as a team, was dropping its inaugural game in the LSC conference tournament to No. 7 seed Texas A&M/Commerce on Wednesday. Wanting to win the tourney outright to guarantee a berth in the South Central Region, the Wildcats are hoping their poll position coming into the week will be enough to earn an at-large invitation to the Division II tourney.
The Wildcats experienced a coaching change during the offseason before the 2012-13 campaign. There was understandable disappointment throughout the team ranks, but Lankford, who had some familiarity with the incoming coach, was perhaps able to allay some apprehension for her teammates. Recruited by Julie Goodenough when making her plans for the next level, Lankford was already impressed by the coach who was then the head of the program at Charleston Southern, in South Carolina — a bit further from the home fires than Mack wanted to go to address studies and play ball. That Goodenough was coming to ACU, and Lankford’s team, was a bit of a minor miracle.
“We were all pretty bummed when we heard our coaches wouldn’t be back [after my sophomore season], but at the same time, I was excited about Coach [Julie] Goodenough coming to ACU,” Lankford said of the transition. “Because I wanted to attend college closer to home after , I was really disappointed I wouldn’t get to play for her [at Charleston Southern].
“And then when I heard she was coming to ACU, I really thought that was great. If we couldn’t play for [Coach Lavender] I was glad to get the chance to play for Coach Goodenough.”
Goodenough brought her own brand of ball into the ACU mix, boding well for the Wildcats, who held a No. 3 ranking in the regional poll at the conclusion of their conference schedule, likely enough to offset their early exit from the conference tournament.
“Everything changed [under Goodenough],” Lankford said. “The way we play, especially on defense. We have been much more focused on all of the little things. It has been really good for our program, overall.”
With the entire ACU roster comprised of Texas-resident women, many relatively near Abilene, many of the athletes on the team already knew each other even before donning Wildcats’ purple. Lankford feels the familiarity has helped promote a positive chemistry among her teammates.
“We have very good team unity and are just good friends, on and off the court,” she said.
And she attributes her many individual successes to the hard work of her teammates, as well.
Mack’s decision to play at ACU, heavily influenced by its proximity to her home town, has paid off for the junior. And the successes of the team, and her individual accomplishments have made the first-hand sharing of her basketball prowess all the sweeter.
“I’m just so happy that most all of our games are close enough for my family and my friends to come to the games,” she said. “And not just the home games. Having family at most of our games is just huge. Having that kind of support is really special, and I feel very fortunate.”
The Wildcats hope their season is not yet over, and have the opportunity to make more good memories in the 2012-13 season. The announcement for the NCAA national tournament field, with established opponents and dates, will be made on Sunday, available at or around 9 p.m. (CST) at ncaasports.com.
Regardless of the postseason outcome, Mack will look to her senior year, in a new conference, with new experiences. Best of all though, her “old,” or rather, established and familiar talents that have served so well, will still be with her.