It's an off day for the Wharton girls basketball team. No practice. No video study. Nothing. Upon hearing the news, the Wildcats' sensational duo of Shayla Cooper and Tesha Hanson, lift their arms in joy, cheer and disappear into a parent's sport-utility vehicle. Then they're off. "Freshmen," soft-spoken Wharton senior Shawnice Higgins jokingly says with a smile while shaking her head. But that's the only indication that would lead you to guess that Wharton's basketball program has been reborn thanks to a pair of 14-year-olds. Cooper and Hanson act like they expect to win. They shrug their shoulders when asked about their sudden rise — "We just go out and play," Hanson said — and without a doubt their talent is rare for players two years shy of a driver's license.
Wharton, a program that won just one game two years ago and was .500 last season, enters this week's girls basketball district tournament as the top seed in Class 6A, District 8 and primed to prove winning knows no age.
The Wildcats have beaten county power and new district rival Plant twice. They've handed up-and-coming Spoto and Freedom reality checks with victories by double digits.
"We've surprised people," Hanson said. "In the beginning of the year, teams were relaxed. It was like, 'It's just Wharton.' Now they know we can play."
Include second-year Wharton coach Chad Reed among the surprised. When Cooper and Hanson showed up on the first day of practice, Reed, who prefers to play a no-nonsense role on the court, said he "had to walk to the other side of the court, so no one could see my face."
The 6-foot Cooper has dominated the paint, averaging a team-high 16.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, but she has the skill to play along the perimeter. The 5-foot-10 Hanson (14.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.7 steals a game) is a savvy floor general who always seems to be around the ball, even when charging the rim for an offensive rebound.
And now the Wildcats, 19-4, winners of seven straight and 13 of their last 14, enter the district tournament.
Despite their youth, the two 14-year-olds seem to have been preparing for their moment in the spotlight for years.
Hanson, the daughter of USF assistant and former Kentucky standout Reggie Hanson, grew up with a basketball in her hand. "It was basketball, basketball, school and basketball," she said. "I knew this was my sport."
Cooper began playing at age 3. She grew up playing against the boys in Alabama, which she said toughened her up.
Cooper is the more outgoing one, but Reed calls Hanson the "Quiet Storm" because of the way she commands respect without talking.
The two have played together for three years, since Hanson moved from Kentucky. Now, they know where the other is going to be at all times.
"We know each other very well," Cooper said. "I just throw the ball, and I know she's going to get it. She can throw it up high, and she'll know I'm going to get it."
Add in senior leadership from Wiggins and Carla Rothacker, who have seen the program rise from the abyss, and the Wildcats are as dangerous as a team can be — a combination of focused upperclassmen with talented youth.
"They've added a lot," Wiggins said. "We've got the post (Cooper). We've got the guard and the forward (Hanson). I love my freshmen. They're like seniors to me. I guess it just seems natural with them."
District tournament schedules
6A-8 at Plant
Tuesday: Alonso (4) vs. Brandon (5), 7; Friday: Wharton (1) vs. Alonso/Brandon winner, 5; Plant (2) vs. Bloomingdale (3), 7; Saturday: Final, 7
5A-9 at Sickles
Wednesday: Gaither (4) vs. Leto (5), 5; Hillsborough (3) vs. Chamberlain (6), 7; Friday: Freedom (2) vs. Hillsborough/Chamberlain winner, 5; Sickles (1) vs. Gaither/Leto winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7
5A-8 at East Bay
Tuesday: Riverview (3) vs. Plant City (6), 4; Durant (2) vs. Armwood (7), 6; East Bay (4) vs. Newsome (5), 8; Friday: Riverview/Plant City winner vs. Durant/Armwood winner, 5; Tampa Bay Tech (1) vs. East Bay/Newsome winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7
4A-9 at Jefferson
Tuesday: Steinbrenner (4) vs. Robinson (5), 6; Jefferson (1) vs. Strawberry Crest (8), 7:30; Wednesday: Blake (3) vs. Middleton (6), 6; Spoto (2) vs. Lennard (7), 7:30; Friday: Spoto/Lennard winner vs. Blake/Middleton winner, 6; Steinbrenner/Robinson winner vs. Jefferson/Strawberry Crest winner, 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7
3A-10 at St. Petersburg Catholic
Tuesday: Clearwater Central Catholic (4) vs. Berkeley Prep (5), 7; Wednesday: Tampa Catholic (2) vs. Academy of the Holy Names (3), 6; St. Petersburg Catholic (1) vs. CCC/Berkeley Prep winner, 7:30; Friday: Final, 7
2A-10 at Indian Rocks Christian
Friday: Tampa Prep (2) vs. Calvary (3), 6; Indian Rocks Christian (1) vs. Bishop McLaughlin (4), 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7
A-9 at Keswick Christian
Tuesday: Tampa Bay Christian (4) vs. Canterbury (5), 6; Cambridge (3) vs. Academy at the Lakes (6), 7:30; Thursday: Lakeside (2) vs. Cambridge/AATL winner, 6; Keswick (1) vs. Tampa Bay Chr./Canterbury winner, 7:30; Friday: Final, 7
A-8 at Citrus Park Christian
Tuesday: Citrus Park Christian (4) vs. Bayshore Christian (5), 6; Thursday: Seffner Christian (2) vs. Hernando Christian (3), 5; Brandenton Christian (1) vs. Citrus Park Chr./Bayshore Chr. winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7