TAMPA — Tesha Hanson never wanted to leave Seffner Christian Academy, and she left little doubt about her preference even as she spent her junior year at Riverview High.
She wore Crusaders athletic gear to class, communicated regularly with her former teammates and even went to some of their basketball games when they didn’t conflict with her own.
By the end of the spring semester, Hanson knew where she wanted to spend her final year of high school. She had been as relentless in her appeals to her parents as she had been on her slashing moves to the basket.
“You know your kids,” said Reggie Hanson, her father and director of basketball operations at USF. “After seeing her and listening to her, it just became obvious that she was going back there at the end of the year.”
Tesha Hanson eventually got her wish, the start of an eventual return to Seffner Christian that was nearly interrupted by a severe knee injury at the start of the summer basketball season.
But she has recovered — though not quite all the way — and rejoined her old team to lead it to the Class 3A state tournament, where the Crusaders will face Miami Country Day in the semifinals Wednesday.
Hanson and the Crusaders will attempt to make good on the promise they first showed in 2011, when they were a precocious bunch of underclassmen who made what most assumed would be the first of several trips to the Lakeland Center.
“It feels like a Cinderella story,” said Hanson, who averages a team-high 17.3 points and also grabs 6.7 rebounds. “This really couldn’t be better. I can’t think of any other team that I would want to share this with.”
Hanson took a circuitous route to Seffner Christian and back again, starting her prep career at Wharton, then transferring to the Baptist school of about 675 students ranging from preschool to high school.
Seffner Christian immediately reminded Hanson of her school back in Lexington, Ky., where her father starred and later coached at the University of Kentucky and eventually settled his young family.
She quickly made friends, particularly with then-freshman point guard Sabrina Whiting, and their chemistry transferred to the court.
The Crusaders went 23-8 and advanced to their first state tournament appearance, where they lost 72-55 to Lake Worth Trinity Christian in the semifinals.
“It was a blur,” Hanson said. “I don’t think we knew what to expect.”
What was expected, however, was that Seffner Christian would return the following season.
With Hanson, Whiting and soon-to-be freshmen Peyton Walker and Asia Weaver prepared to join varsity, coach Greg Fawbush figured the Crusaders were fully stocked for a run at a state championship.
“We had everybody coming back and we were going to pick up a few new players,” he said.
Except they didn’t have everybody coming back: Hanson’s parents sent her to Riverview, a bigger public school with its own good basketball program.
Hanson mostly recreated her on-court success there, averaging 19 points and teaming with 6-foot-2 Georgetown signee Faith Woodard — now at Freedom High — to lead the Sharks to a 21-5 record and a playoff berth.
It still wasn’t the same, Hanson said. Even as she flourished on the court, she longed to return to her friends and close-knit environment of Seffner Christian.
Meanwhile, at her old school, Whiting led the Crusaders to a 24-5 record and the region finals. Though the season was generally considered a success, it was hard for everyone to not think of what they could have accomplished together.
“I always thought if we had (Hanson),” Whiting said, “we could’ve done a little more.”
They’ll have their chance Wednesday and, if they win, possibly Thursday. The Crusaders will do it with a team deeper and more experienced than the one that made it this far two years ago.
That has been a relief for Hanson, who tore ligaments in her right knee in April and was forced to miss much of her final summer of AAU basketball. She spent most of the summer strengthening her knee with her father, and trying to stave off the boredom and loneliness that comes with hours and hours of rehabilitation.
“I had never had a summer off (from sports),” she said. “I would say that I was depressed. I really tried to find myself and who I am and what I do away from basketball. If basketball was on, I couldn’t even watch it.”
Said Reggie Hanson: “I gave her one week of sympathy. And then it was time to get to work.”
She made her official return to the floor in late November, a six-month turnaround for an injury that often sidelines players for a year. Since then, Hanson has shown more than a few glimpses of the dynamic athlete she was before the injury.
Fawbush said Hanson has been steadily building to this moment in Lakeland, pointing to her performance in the region final victory over Florida Air Academy — 20 points, six rebounds, four assists.
“There were times that she took over the game,” he said. “She’s leaping higher and getting more aggressive with it.”
In a number of ways, she’s back.
At the Lakeland Center
Admission is $10 per session; parking is $7
Class 3A: Seffner Christian vs. Miami Country Day, 1:30
On the Web: We’ll be live blogging the game at tampabay.com/hometeam.
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jdhometeam.