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CLEARWATER — There was a time when few people were surprised by Clearwater playing for a berth in the girls basketball state semifinals.
The Tornadoes, after all, were long considered a juggernaut, with eight final four appearances in 12 seasons from 1996 to 2007.
Since then Clearwater has been a consistent playoff contender, but has not reached the state semifinals. The Tornadoes get another shot Saturday at 7 when they travel to Sebastian River for a Class 7A region final.
This time, however, Clearwater (23-6) is in the unfamiliar role of underdog.
“I think few people would have given us a chance to go as far we have,” Tornadoes coach Tom Shaneyfelt said. “This is as high as I probably would have set the bar for us.”
Clearwater, unranked all season, faces a Sebastian River (23-3) team ranked No. 3 in 7A and led by guard Brittany Jackson, who has signed with Georgia Tech.
To advance, the Tornadoes will have to win on the road in front of a packed gymnasium.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Shaneyfelt said.
Last season, Clearwater was in a similar position against Boca Ciega in the region semifinals. The Tornadoes won on a last-second shot by Emma Loucks and ended the Pirates’ three-year streak of making the state final four.
Loucks graduated, but the Tornadoes still have a strong nucleus with Alex Alford, Tyra Bolden, Aja Jenkins and Javon McTier.
“We don’t have that true prolific scorer, but we have some good variety and balance,” Shaneyfelt said. “Anyone could lead us in scoring on any different night. And they’ve all come a long way. We just have to figure out what we can do offensively to make some positive results in the next game.”
Clearwater has gotten to this point by showing composure, grabbing key rebounds, making smart passes in traffic and hitting clutch shots down the stretch.
“We just need to listen to our coaches, keep crashing the boards and not take anything for granted,” Bolden said. “If we do that, I think we can keep winning.”