TAMPA — Brooks-DeBartolo girls basketball coach Dexter Bryant still feels like his team is an outsider.
Granted the Phoenix, lacking an on-campus gymnasium, spent its first two seasons practicing outdoors at Copeland Park after school, through winter cold and rain. And, yes, until this season Brooks-DeBartolo played all of its games on the road.
But now in Year 3, the Phoenix finally has a home — and hope. This is the program’s first season of district play, and its first opportunity to make the postseason.
“We’re getting there,” Bryant said. “The first year, we had two wins. Last year we had 12 wins. We’ve got 12 already this year, and one of the best records in Hillsborough County.”
Brooks-DeBartolo (12-4, 4-2), the public charter school created four years ago with the support of former Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks, currently sits in second place in Class 2A-10, its only district losses coming to first-place Indian Rocks Christian.
“Once we first got on the court this year, I was like, ‘Wow, we’ve really got some talent. We can work with this,’ ” said 6-foot-2 sophomore center Tatiana Manuel. “I was actually surprised.”
Tuesday’s 82-46 loss to IRC was closer than the score indicated. The Phoenix trailed the Eagles by only three points at the half, but the deficit rose to 18 after three quarters, and Bryant played his subs in the final quarter.
“We’re building,” Bryant said. “It was tough to take off. The first year we probably looked like we did in the second half. We know we’re going to play these guys again, and maybe again. Now you’re beginning to actually see what you’re building.”
Despite the loss, Manuel, a Blake transfer, was a force inside, blocking 12 shots. Manuel, who was just two points short of a double double (eight points, 10 rebounds), is second in the state in blocks (6.4 a game) according to MaxPreps, trailing only Sickles All-American Amber Henson (7.0)
Junior Vintoria Hopps, the team’s leading scorer with 14.3 points a game, also scored a double double (17 points, 13 rebounds).
“We’re not going to hang our heads,” Hopps said after Tuesday’s loss. “This is what makes athletes, coming back from adversity. No gym, no nothing. Coming to this school and handling that adversity, that makes athletes. We just have more heart this year. It’s a mentality. We just want it. We know we have something special.”
The Phoenix have beaten district rival Calvary Christian twice, and handed Karim Nohra’s Academy of the Lakes team one of its two losses this season.
Bryant, an assistant coach under Nohra at Cambridge, said he models his coaching style after Nohra, the Times’ all-Suncoast coach of the year the past two seasons, instilling a fast-paced, man-to-man game that keeps opponents on their toes.
The future is bright for the Phoenix. The team now practices and plays most of its home games at Young Middle School. There are no seniors in the starting five — it is made up of one freshman, two sophomores and three juniors. Bryant issued an open call to play any county public school next year; there are none on this season’s schedule.
But make no mistake, Brooks-DeBartolo, a small school of 239 students, is playing for now.
“When you know you have something special, you just have to keep pushing, no matter how hard things get,” Manuel said. “Don’t ever let anything stop you. Just because we’re a small school is doesn’t mean anything. We can still go all the way. You never know.”