This year’s Lakewood High girls basketball team has never been more grateful for the start of a season. Not because the Spartans made it to the Class 6A state final last year and have most of that team back.
It’s because they don’t have to swim anymore.
At the beginning of the fall semester, Lakewood did not have a swim coach. In danger of cancelling the season, girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil stepped in despite having zero experience in swimming.
She was not going to go it alone. Tunsil required all nine of her varsity basketball players to join the swim team. None swim competitively. Most of them had never tried swimming period.
"It was terrible," senior forward Jakyra Champine said. "I’ve never swam before, and I have asthma so (Tunsil) would have me do these really hard things and then they would have to yank me out of the water."
Preseason conditioning started with sprints and laps around the track. No problem for basketball players. But when things shifted to the pool?
"First we started working out on land, and we’re basketball players so we’re used to that," senior guard Paris Williams said. "So we see everybody behind us (while running). Then we get in the pool and they are all lapping us and we’re the ones in the back. They were swimming so fast, like 50 mph."
From that first day in the water, the basketball players had a new respect for the swimmers. Swimming from one end of the pool to the other is not as easy as it looks. Even diving off a starting block takes a special skill.
"I couldn’t dive in the water," Williams said. "I would just jump straight in, legs first … Every. Single. Time."
"It was like somebody threw a cat in the bath tub," sophomore Macey Zeh-Arndt added.
Senior forward Toi Smith is used to standing out on the basketball court, but she admits she met her match in the pool.
"I didn’t stand out," Smith said. "I was just there. I couldn’t wait for basketball to start. I was mentally and physically drained."
Tunsil admitted her team would rather run bleachers in the gym than get in the pool. But she’s proud her team gutted out the season. None of them ever won an event and most times they finished last.
Tunsil said she will not coach swimming next season. She is one and done, but she thinks she did a pretty good job. "I should’ve got coach of the year," Tunsil said with a half-smile.
She also said there was a silver lining by her team blending with the swim team.
"By this team swimming, it kind of brought the CAT (Center for Advanced Technologies) and the Lakewood mainstream together," Tunsil said. "For those who gave it a real opportunity, they made new friends. They want to come to the basketball games now and support them. I think for a long period of time the CAT program was over here and Lakewood was over there.
"But they made a bond. They’ve gone to some of the swimmers’ houses. They’ve gone on picnics. They went to Busch Gardens together. It brought our school together in a way."
On the court, Lakewood is 5-0 after the first two weeks. Smith is averaging 24 points per game. Williams isn’t far behind with 16 ppg. Junior Diana Rosenthal, senior Jaylynn Presley and Champine can also score.
Zeh-Arndt, a 6-foot-2 center, is a newcomer. She played at Seffner Christian as a freshman despite living in St. Petersburg.
"(Lakewood) was a lot closer to home and Florida Virtual School didn’t work out," Zeh-Arndt said. "I knew most of them. I knew Paris and Toi and Jakyra and Diana."
The Spartans haven’t really been tested early in the season. That could change Saturday when they play Lakewood Ranch. And it will for sure change when they play in the Florida Prospects tournament in Orlando from Dec. 28-30.
"This particular team, like last year’s team, has all the pieces to make it to state if that’s your goal," Tunsil said. "If that’s your goal just to make it to states, then we have the pieces to do that. But if we’re talking about winning a state championship, then we have to get better."