NEW PORT RICHEY — Before their next matchup, River Ridge girls basketball players will be splayed across the couches and floor at one player’s house.
Teammates will snack on pizza or sandwiches, and in the middle of all of it, Leah Ford will be helping someone with her homework.
The pregame ritual has brought the girls together several times per week in their 10-2 season, and it’s one of many activities that makes them close.
With eight juniors and three seniors on the team, the girls find it easy to bond because they’re in many of the same classes. Still, Ford, a junior guard who has started for three seasons, knows she stands apart as a leader. Coach Joeyn Dearsman knows it, too.
“They feed off her,” Dearsman said, “which is usually good, but sometimes bad. But she knows, and she has a lot of energy.”
Ford leads the Royal Knights in scoring (17.4 per game) and recently topped the 1,000-point mark for her career. She didn’t ask for leadership responsibilities, but she doesn’t deny them either.
“I don’t want my teammates to think it’s all about me,” Ford said. “I’m really proud when they score, when we play as a team.”
Ford has 33 free-throw attempts this season and knows opponents target her. That, as well as her importance to her team’s success, was evident in a recent two-point win over Mitchell, she said.
“It seemed like if I couldn’t score, then we were done,” she said. “And I don’t want it to be that way.”
Though the pressure might be new to her, basketball is not. Ford’s father, Tim, played college ball at Western Carolina. He taught her to play as a little girl and enrolled her at the YMCA when she was barely into elementary school.
She’s constantly trying to improve, in part so she can lead the Royal Knights by example. Though her skills and athleticism are part of her effectiveness on the court, her father taught her how to lead using her attitude.
“My dad told me that how good I am is up to me because it’s all in my head,” Ford said. “I try to keep my head up if the shots aren’t falling.”
This season, she said, is about improving her defense. And those free-throw attempts have told her she needs to stand her ground against aggressive opponents. At 5 feet 9, she isn’t particularly tall or muscular, and defense hasn’t been her strong suit in the past.
“If my shots aren’t falling, I still want to have a big impact on the game like in rebounds or something,” said Ford, who does lead the team in defensive rebounds (29), steals (16) and blocks (seven) this season.
This time next year, she’ll probably be weighing the benefits of different colleges and might have even signed a letter of intent. That’s the dream, anyway.
She has had several heroes who have played college basketball such as Candace Parker for Tennessee, but she doesn’t have a dream school. Just anywhere she can play ball.
“A lot of people believe in me and think I can do it,” Ford said. “So that’s what I want to do.”
Mary Kenney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaryKNews.