ST. PETERSBURG — When Northeast High won 16 girls basketball games and advanced to the Class 7A region quarterfinals last season, the Vikings did it with a mixture of strong guard play and size under the basket. The challenge this season was to figure out how to win without much size.
To be sure, Northeast does not intimidate when it enters the gym. The Vikings have only one player over 6 feet, senior center Kelsee Milligan. Most of the team is about 5-foot-6.
Can a roster full of guards repeat the success of seasons past? So far, yes.
Entering the week, Northeast was 12-4 and second in the district behind Clearwater. The Vikings are on pace to surpass the 16 wins of last season and make another appearance in the region tournament.
"There’s two philosophies: do you force a system on a team or do you change the system according to what you have?" Northeast coach Will White said. "I think you adjust to what you have. We have a core set of things we want to do, but this year we have a lot of good dribble/drive players so that is what we do."
The leader is senior Emily Joseph, who has been with the varsity since she was a sophomore. Joseph averages 17 points per game as the team’s top scoring threat. She has always been dangerous from 3-point range, and this year she has added drives to the basket as the team’s defacto center.
"We’re a lot faster than we used to be," Joseph said. "We have a lot more guards so we do a lot more shooting. We don’t have a natural forward. I’ve been having to drive to the basket a lot more this year because of that. If you get too close then I’m going to go by you."
Sophomore Kanesha Hall has been a welcome addition to the team. A junior varsity player last season, she has proven ready for the big stage. She is second behind Joseph in scoring with 11.4 points per game.
And perhaps the most important guard in the mix is junior Celina Hawkins. A deft ball handler, she is in charge of setting up the Vikings’ offense. While she scores only 4.3 points per game, her main duty is to make sure the ball gets to where it needs to be.
"I like controlling the floor," Hawkins said. "My passes end up leading to scoring. I like that more than anything. Scoring is nice but I like making points happen."
Two other guards who have contributed are junior Angel Smith and senior Hannah Merkel. Both average 6.7 points and do a lot of the dirty work that helps the team win.
"It’s really no big deal, just play basketball," Merkel said. "Whatever the coach needs me to do, I just do it."
White has had a knack for getting the most out of his teams since he took over at Northeast in 2012. Before he arrived, the Vikings had made the playoffs just once since 1986. They have made regionals three times since then and won 25 games in 2014-15.
With a win over Keswick Christian on Dec. 23, White earned his 113th win at the school, which makes him the all-time winningest girls basketball coach at Northeast. He is also the winningest coach at Boca Ciega (193 wins). Overall, including two years in Missouri and one in Lakeland, White has 349 career wins.
"I’m proud of what we’ve done," White said.
As for this year’s team, so far they have been able to squeeze the most out of a team that appears easy to figure out. With few real centers and a starting lineup of mostly guards, Northeast has still been able to score 53 points per game.
White knows his team will have a hard time against the area’s elite teams, like Clearwater or Lakewood, but they can stay competitive with just about any other team on their schedule.
"There are a lot of teams, especially in girls basketball, where if you stop Player X or Player Y, then you can beat them," White said. "I don’t think you can do that with us. We have several players who can score. Emily probably could, but nobody else is going to go off for 30 (points). And nobody is just going to get two or three points either. It’s a very unselfish team. It’s one of the most fun teams I’ve ever had."