ST. PETERSBURG — When Will White became coach at Northeast three years ago, he left a school (Boca Ciega) used to winning district and region championships.
Northeast, on the other hand, wasn’t used to winning much at all. White found out in an early game against Osceola in his first season that it would take some time and patience to get things turned around.
“Osceola has the ball with about 10 seconds left and we’re behind,” White said. “We’ve got fouls to give so I tell the girls to foul. They throw the ball in and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea. They let Osceola go down the court and hit a shot.
“After the game I asked them why they didn’t foul. They said, ‘You wanted us to foul on purpose?’ They just didn’t understand. It was like an epiphany to me. They had a lack of understanding, which was fine. We just had to work harder on the basics.”
The Vikings went 10-16 that first year, just another losing season for a team that hadn’t had a winning one since 1998. But White saw it as something to build on.
Last season, Northeast went 15-12. The Vikings weren’t dominant, but they weren’t getting pushed around much either.
And this season? The Vikings are 15-5 and well on their way to 20 wins, which hasn’t been done since 1986.
“In my freshman year, if teams were playing Northeast they saw it as an easy win,” said senior guard Lisa Waithe. “Now people are actually getting ready for us. They are worried about playing Northeast.”
That’s not to say the Vikings are a state championship-caliber team. They are behind Clearwater and Countryside in Class 7A-9 and will need to upset one of them in the district tournament to qualify for regionals. But they are playing with confidence.
Northeast is coming off three wins and a championship at its own holiday tournament. There have also been big wins over Countryside, Boca Ciega and Lakewood. In fact, the Vikings started the season by beating nemesis Lakewood, which used to routinely beat them by more than 35 points.
“That game used to be us getting destroyed,” junior Emina Podzic said. “If any of us even scored, congratulations. But now we can compete. We actually beat them. We really did that.”
Northeast is not a team built around one player. The Vikings spread out their scoring and play most of the roster. Junior Maddie Winningham, a Boca Ciega transfer, and sophomore Madison Schmidt both average 10 points per game.
Podzic averages 6.9 points and plays tenacious defense. Kaycee Folwell, Waithe and Laura Fizell have all provided a spark.
Building a team has been White’s plan from the beginning. As soon as he got on campus he started recruiting any girls who might be interested in basketball. The result has been a steady climb up the food chain.
“My first year the goal was to just get better,” White said. “Last year we just didn’t want to get running clocked. When you are building there are moral victories. This year the girls are competing against everyone. I think that’s how you build a program.”
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @RodneyHomeTeam.