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RIVERVIEW — Lelani Gordon seems to be the consummate realist. The 30-year coaching veteran, the only coach Riverview’s girls basketball program has had since the school opened in 1989, has seen her share of wins and losses.
Even her trained eye couldn’t have predicted the Sharks’ success. If anything, Gordon thought her team was a little too young to make a deep postseason run, especially after last February’s first-round district tournament exit.
But with a win over district rival Durant — a team Riverview has beaten three times by double digits already — tonight, the 26-2 Sharks would advance to their first region final in school history.
After that, a state tournament berth, and after that, who knows? One thing’s for sure. Apparently no one told the Sharks they were supposed to be a year away.
“It’s definitely a big leap from one year to the next, but they’re almost fearless,” Gordon said, comparing this year’s team to last year’s 14-win squad. “They’re just young enough that they don’t really understand the magnitude. I know that this doesn’t happen every year.
“It takes more than talent. It takes luck, it takes skill, it takes a good bracket. Everything has to happen.”
Gordon is quick to distinguish that her talented group of girls isn’t cocky. They’re too young for that. They know that everything has seemingly come together for them this year, but that they haven’t reached their peak.
“With the group of girls we had, I thought anything was possible,” said Ashley Favors, the team’s only senior. “It may be a surprise to outsiders, but to us we know how hard we can play. And we haven’t played our best basketball this season. We’re still trying to learn about each other. If all five of us play to our full potential, nobody can beat us.”
The Sharks are 16-0 at home, and the road to the state tournament will go through their home gym.
For sophomore Faith Woodard, a soon-to-be major Division I recruit who is averaging 18.4 points and 11.1 rebounds, her best shot of the year was one that didn’t count. The 6-foot-2 Woodard swished a shot at the buzzer from well beyond midcourt that seemingly beat Tampa Bay Tech, but was called back.
Take away that and a three-point loss to Pennsylvania’s Corry in the prestigious Basketball Brothers Inc. Invitational in Fort Myers, and the Sharks would be undefeated.
“When we got here we didn’t plan to be this good, but everything just kind of fell into place and we rolled with it,” Woodard said. “We didn’t think we’d be going to states or anything. We just go out and play. We don’t have any pressure.”
But the difference might be three mostly unheralded players in the middle. Six-foot junior post players Justina James (8.8 points, 9.0 assists) and Jessica Causey (9.1 points, 6.9 rebounds), along with freshman sixth man Madison Greaney, have given the Sharks a rebounding edge they didn’t have last year.
“They catapulted us,” Favors said. “They made a world of difference.”
That has allowed Riverview to play to its strengths: maintaining a fast pace and beating teams in transition with Woodard, Favors and sophomore guard Monet Williams.
“That’s when we’re at our best,” Woodard said. “But we still haven’t had a game when we all have had our best games yet.”