Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Girls basketball: Sturdy Steinbrenner has room to grow

LUTZ — JR Allen admits he never saw himself as a girls basketball coach.

For six years, Allen coached boys basketball at Crystal River and Ridge Community high schools. When Steinbrenner opened in 2009, he expressed interest in becoming the first boys coach for the Warriors, but the job already had been filled.

Instead, Allen was given the responsibility of starting the girls basketball program at Steinbrenner, a team that started four freshmen and a sophomore and still finished 9-10 in its first year of existence.

As expected, the Warriors struggled at first. Eventually, though, they improved, so much so that they won the Class 7A, District 9 title in 2012.

That group of founding Warriors also taught Allen a valuable lesson:

"The girls will run through a wall for you," he said. "What you lose in … high scoring games, you gain in the way they listen, the passion they'll play with, and just sheer effort."

The seven Warriors who started the program as freshmen included Bailey Hooker, who became the program's all-time leading scorer with 1,285 points over four years, and point guard Justice Thigpen, whose 160 assists in her final season, Allen said, were the second most in Class 7A basketball.

Those players, who graduated last summer, were the building blocks of the program. They were also half of last season's roster, and they accounted for 58 percent of the scoring.

Now, Allen is left with a young team again, one that is well aware of its identity yet lacking one crucial component.

"Every single game we've lost, I still get kind of sick to my stomach because we've at one point in the game and late in the game, controlled it. But we just couldn't get it done," Allen said. "Therein lies our problem: This team is a little bit on the softer side of having a stand-up, get-in-your-face leader."

That was the very thing junior forward Rachel Briere worried about as the 2013-14 season approached.

Briere, who started in each of her first two seasons, said she wasn't concerned about where the scoring would come from. The 6-foot junior leads a defensive-minded team — it has won nine of its 19 games by scoring 50 points or fewer — in scoring this season, averaging nearly 13 points a game.

Instead, Briere worried about the leadership void her former teammates left.

"I knew it would fall on me and Taylor (Thigpen), but I've never been a vocal leader," Briere said. "I was kind of like, I don't really know how this is going to work out."

It's a role she wasn't sure she wanted, but one Allen said Briere has been working hard to embrace.

With or without a leader, however, Steinbrenner (19-3, 5-1) sits atop the Class 7A, District 9 standings and has a solid chance at finishing its fifth season with another title in tow.

Allen can't complain about the results thus far, especially in what could be considered a rebuilding year for the Warriors. Still, there's one ingredient missing, and Allen is eagerly awaiting its arrival.

"The pieces are there," he said about the leadership potential. "It's just a matter of them putting them together."

Kelly Parsons can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @_kellyparsons.

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