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Riverview Sharks take on Winter Haven in region girls basketball match

Riverview’s Justina James (25) tips a rebound above Durant’s Kay Cee Nelson (21) during the 5A-8 district final on Feb. 4.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Riverview’s Justina James (25) tips a rebound above Durant’s Kay Cee Nelson (21) during the 5A-8 district final on Feb. 4.

RIVERVIEW — The Class 5A girls basketball final paints a clear picture of contrasts.

Winter Haven, Riverview's opponent Saturday, has won a pair of state championships, 44 total playoff games and reached the postseason every year since 1998.

Riverview, on the other hand?

The Sharks have three playoff wins in school history — and two of those have come this year — but they appear unfazed.

"It's a beautiful thing, isn't it?" Sharks coach Lelani Gordon said. "These kids are fearless, to a degree."

In order for Riverview to reach the final four in Lakeland next week, the Sharks will have to defeat visiting Winter Haven — and all its tradition — Saturday night at 7 in the 5A region finals. Even more impressive, five of the 10 Sharks are underclassmen and Riverview has just one senior on the squad.

"They are just young enough not to be intimidated or overwhelmed," Gordon said. "It's almost like they don't know any better. And that's a good thing."

Riverview reached the playoffs in 2000 and won the school's first postseason game in 2006 but Gordon, in her 27th year coaching and 13th with the Sharks, didn't blink when asked if this is the best team Riverview's ever seen.

"Without a doubt," said Gordon, the only girls basketball coach Riverview has ever known. "They are the best I've had, hands down."

The 27-2 Sharks have made quite a turnaround from last year's mediocre 13-10 team. Gordon said the biggest change has been the inside play of two 6-foot newcomers: Justina James and Jessica Causey. Both juniors are averaging just under nine rebounds per game.

"And that's nearly 20 rebounds per game we didn't have last year," Gordon said. "We were really missing that post presence."

James and Causey have also freed up sophomore Faith Woodard to step outside and assume a more comfortable role on the perimeter. At 6 feet 1, Woodard's length creates headaches for nearly all wing players at the high school level.

"She's a mismatch for anyone outside," Gordon said.

Woodard, who plays for the Nike-sponsored Essence team out of Tallahassee during the summer, is a star in the making. Woodard leads the Sharks in points (18.4), rebounds (10.8), blocks (3.1) and steals (3.5).

"She has tremendous skills," Gordon said. "She can go inside or outside."

Fellow sophomore Monet Williams leads the team in assists (3.1) and is third in scoring at 10.4 points per game. Toss in freshman Madison Greaney, who works into the rotation off the bench, and it's clear how heavily the Sharks rely on youth.

"They're a little naive," Gordon said. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing."

And the glue that holds all this youth together is captain Ashley Favors, the lone senior. Favors is second on the Sharks at 11.5 points per game and first on the team in leadership.

"If we're playing around too much at practice, (Favors) is going to let us know," Woodard said. "Being a senior, there is no tomorrow. Each game could be her last."

And Gordon is hoping that won't come Saturday. While Riverview's youngsters are busy being kids, Gordon, like Favors, knows what's at stake.

"Ashley understands these chances don't come along every year," Gordon said. "I want this as badly for her as I do because she has been such a leader for this team. She deserves the experience of it all."

Riverview Sharks take on Winter Haven in region girls basketball match 02/17/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 3:08pm]
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